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Quick Facts

Basal Cell Carcinoma


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What is basal cell carcinoma?

Carcinoma is a medical word for cancer. Basal cells are a type of cell in your skin. So basal cell carcinoma is a kind of skin cancer.

  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer

  • Fair-skinned people are more likely to get it than darker-skinned people

  • It usually grows on skin that has been exposed to the sun

  • Doctors usually remove this kind of skin cancer with surgery, but sometimes they treat it with chemotherapy or radiation

  • Unlike other cancers, basal cell carcinoma hardly ever spreads to other parts of the body or kills you

What causes basal cell carcinoma?

Basal cell carcinoma is often caused by sun exposure.

What are the symptoms of basal cell carcinoma?

Basal cell carcinoma is usually a growth (tumor) on your skin (usually on your head or neck) that is:

  • Small, shiny, firm, and raised

  • Almost clear to pink in color

  • Full of visible tiny blood vessels

  • Sometimes, with a thickened, pearly white outer border

It can also appear as:

  • Raised bumps that may break open and form scabs in the center

  • Flat pale or red patches that look like scars

  • Sores that bleed, form a scab, and heal over

Tumors are usually slow growing but can grow as much as a half inch in a year.

How can doctors tell if I have basal cell carcinoma?

To tell if you have this type of skin cancer, doctors will:

  • Do a biopsy (take out a small sample of skin to look at it under a microscope)

How do doctors treat basal cell carcinoma?

To treat basal cell carcinoma, doctors will remove the cancer in one of these ways:

  • Scrape and burn it with an electric needle

  • Cut it out with surgery

  • Kill the cancer with extreme cold (cryosurgery) or radiation

  • Put chemotherapy drugs on the cancer

If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, your doctor may give you chemotherapy to take by mouth.

How can I prevent basal cell carcinoma?

The best way to prevent basal cell carcinoma is to limit sun exposure:

  • Stay out of the sun—sit in the shade, try to avoid the sun between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm

  • Don't sunbathe or use tanning beds

  • Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats with broad brims

  • Use sunscreen that’s at least 30 sun protection factor (SPF)—it's important to use more sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating

See a doctor if you see a change in a skin growth that doesn't go away after a few weeks.

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