What is basal cell carcinoma?

Skin cancer happens quite often. In fact, more than one out of every three new cancer cases diagnosed is skin cancer. There are many different types of skin cancer, but the most common form is basal cell carcinoma, or BCC. In the innermost layer of your skin, you have cells called basal cells. Sometimes, these cells start growing out of control and form cancerous lumps of tissue called tumors.

In most cases, people develop BCC from spending a great deal of time in the sun without applying sunscreen. It can also come from spending lots of time in a tanning bed.

Common related conditions
Skin Cancer Melanoma

Risk factors for basal cell carcinoma

Spending a lot of time in the sun (or in a tanning bed) puts you at greater risk for developing BCC. That means people who live in sunny areas are at greater risk. You may also be at greater risk if you:

  • Are over the age of 50
  • Have a family history of BCC
  • Have light skin and eyes and sunburn easily
  • Have had radiation therapy to treat skin conditions
  • Are taking drugs that suppress your immune system
  • Had severe sunburns during your childhood or as a teenager

While both sexes can get BCC, men get it more often than women.

Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma

Your head and neck are where BCC most frequently appears, but it can show up anywhere on your body. This includes your legs and even parts of your body that aren't usually exposed to the sun. Although it has many different forms and colors, BCC usually looks like a sore that won’t heal. Some things to look for are:

  • A sore with dark spots — this sore might be blue, black or brown, and it'll have raised edges.
  • A light-colored bump that you can see into — it may be white, flesh-colored or pink, and it's often found on your face, ears and neck.
  • A reddish patch — this sore is flat and scaly, and it can grow large if you leave it alone; this type is most often found on your back or chest.
  • A waxy sore that looks like a scar — this is the least common type of BCC, but it can grow beneath the skin and cause a lot of damage, so it's important to pay attention to any changes like this that appear on your skin.

Diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma

You can be diagnosed by your family doctor or by a skin doctor (dermatologist). The doctor will ask questions about your exposure to the sun, your family history of skin cancer and how long you've had the growth.

An examination of your skin is next, checking for any other sores. If the sore or sores look suspicious, your doctor will remove a sample of it and have it tested for cancer, also know as a biopsy.

Treatments for basal cell carcinoma

How your doctor treats your BCC will depend on where it is on your skin, how large it is and whether or not this is the first time you've had it.

Options for treating it include different types of surgery. A surgeon may cut out the cancerous cells or freeze them with liquid nitrogen so they die.

Drugs are another option for treatments. A cream or ointment that you put on your skin may be all it takes for you to treat your BCC.

Recovery from basal cell carcinoma

Most of the time, the treatment will take care of the BCC. You'll need to watch your skin and have follow-up tests and exams to make sure that it doesn't come back. Start doing your own skin exams at home every month, and look at the treated area for any new growths. You'll also work with your doctor to learn how to effectively protect your skin when you're out in the sun.

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