Learning About Basal Cell Skin Cancer

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Basal skin cancer

Overview

Basal cell skin cancer (carcinoma) is the most common type of skin cancer. This cancer grows slowly and does not usually spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. But if this cancer isn't treated, it can damage the nearby skin and deeper tissues.

Basal cell skin cancer is usually treated with surgery to remove the cancer. When it is found and treated early, it's almost always cured.

This skin cancer is usually caused by too much sun. Using tanning beds or sunlamps can also cause it. It most often appears on areas of the body that have been exposed to the sun. These areas include the face, head, and trunk of the body. The nose is the most common site.

What are the symptoms?

Basal cell skin cancer usually affects the face, head, and trunk of the body. The nose is the most common site.

Signs of basal cell skin cancer include:

  • Any firm, pearly bump with tiny blood vessels that look spidery (telangiectasias).
  • Any red, tender, flat spot that bleeds easily.
  • Any small, fleshy bump with a smooth, pearly appearance, often with a lower area in the center.
  • Any bump that can be darker than the rest of your skin. This is more common in people with darker skin.
  • Any smooth, shiny bump that may look like a mole or cyst.
  • Any patch of skin, especially on the face, that looks like a scar and is firm to the touch.
  • Any bump or sore that itches, bleeds, crusts over, and then repeats the cycle and has not healed in a few weeks.
  • Any change in the size, shape, or color of a mole or a skin growth.

How is it treated?

Your doctor will want to remove all of the cancer. There are several ways to remove it. It depends on how big it is, where it is on your body, and your age and overall health. Options include:

  • Surgery. The doctor numbs the skin and cuts out the cancer. This almost always cures the cancer.
  • Mohs micrographic surgery. The doctor removes the skin cancer one layer at a time, checking each layer for cancer cells right after it is removed.
  • Curettage and electrosurgery. Curettage uses a spoon-shaped tool (curette) to scrape off the skin cancer. Electrosurgery controls the bleeding.
  • Topical therapy. Medicine is applied to the skin.
  • Cryosurgery. This destroys the cancer by freezing it.
  • Photodynamic therapy. This uses a medicine that is activated with light.

Radiation therapy may be done if surgery isn't an option. Treatment for advanced cases may include targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy.

After treatment, you'll need regular checkups.

How can you lower your risk?

  • Always wear a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves and pants when you are outdoors.
  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is the peak time for UV rays. If outdoors, seek the shade.
  • Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin. This is important for people of all skin colors. Make sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Use it every day, even when it is cloudy.
  • Use lip balm or cream that has SPF to protect your lips from getting sunburned.
  • Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
  • Do not use tanning booths or sunlamps.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You see a change in your skin, such as a spot, bump, or mole that:
    • Grows bigger. This may happen slowly.
    • Changes color.
    • Changes shape.
    • Starts to bleed easily or develops a crust.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.