Skin Cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma

  • Basics

    Basal cell carcinoma is an extremely common form of skin cancer that is usually found in light-skinned populations who have had significant sun exposure. Of all skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common. It is associated with sun exposure, and usually appears on the head or neck. Basal cell carcinoma is increasing in incidence in the US, possibly because more people are living longer. However, the incidence of BCC in young adults in their twenties and thirties is also increasing.

    BCC usually appears as a flat growth on the head or neck. It may appear red and look like an irritated patch of skin, or look like a pearly bump, a white or yellow scar-like lesion, or an open sore that never completely heals. Fortunately, it is almost always curable Figure 01. The lesions often appear translucent, and contain visible small blood vessels. They grow slowly and rarely spread to other parts of the body. However, untreated lesions can cause considerable damage due to extensive destructive growth patterns. Surgical removal of the lesions is the preferred treatment, although radiation and cryosurgery (which involves removal of the lesion by freezing) are common alternatives. The cure rate can approach 90% to 95% with appropriate treatment.

    Click to enlarge: Basal cell carcinoma

    Figure 01. Basal cell carcinoma

    If BCC is left untreated, its uncontrolled growth will destroy normal skin and invade bone and, in some cases, other vital structures. Fortunately, BCC is usually discovered before significant damage occurs, and is cured by surgical removal or destruction. In rare cases basal cell carcinoma spreads to distant organs. These cases call for aggressive surgical treatment.

  • Causes

    Like other skin cancers, BCC is predominantly caused by damage from sun exposure. Lesions arise from cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis and spread locally, destroying surrounding tissue Figure 02. The skin, the largest organ of the body, is composed of three layers. The topmost layer (epidermis) is where most skin cancers develop. Basal cell carcinoma arises from the epithelial cells, the cells that comprise most of the epidermis. Both radiation from the sun and artificial radiation contribute to BCC development. Most BCC is found on commonly sun-exposed areas (the face, ears, scalp, and neck) of older, light-skinned individuals.

    Click to enlarge: Skin anatomy

    Figure 02. Skin anatomy

    Other factors such as genetic predisoposition, trauma, chronic ulcers, burn scars, or some types of birthmarks may also lead to basal cell carcinoma, as evidenced by the fact that BCC can occur on parts of the body that are not exposed to the sun.

Recommended Reading

Meet the Pharmacists

I'm Kristen Dore, PharmD. Welcome to PDR Health!

Check out my latest blog post on heartburn medication

Skin Cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma Related Drugs

Skin Cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma Related Conditions