Basal Cell Carcinoma
What Is Basal Cell Carcinoma?
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, accounting for more than 90% of all skin cancer cases in the U.S. These cancers almost never spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. They can, however, cause damage by growing and invading surrounding tissue.
What Are the Risk Factors for Getting Basal Cell Carcinoma?
Light-colored skin and sun exposure are both important factors in the development of basal cell carcinomas. About 20% of these skin cancers, however, occur in areas that are not sun-exposed, such as the chest, back, arms, legs, and scalp. The face, however, remains the most common location for basal cell lesions. Weakening of the immune system, whether by disease or medication, can also promote the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma.
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. Artificial sources of UV radiation, such as sunlamps and tanning booths, can also cause skin cancer. The risk of developing skin cancer is also affected by where a person lives. People who live in areas that receive high levels of UV radiation from the sun are more likely to develop skin cancer. In the U.S., for example, skin cancer is more common in Texas than it is in Minnesota, where the sun is not as strong. Worldwide, the highest rates of skin cancer are found in South Africa, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia, which are areas that receive high amounts of UV radiation. Most skin cancers appear after age 50, but the sun's damaging effects begin at an early age. Therefore, protection should start in childhood in order to prevent skin cancer later in life.
What Does Basal Cell Carcinoma Look Like?
A basal cell carcinoma usually begins as a small, dome-shaped bump and is often covered by small, superficial blood vessels called telangectasias. The texture of such a spot is often shiny and translucent, sometimes referred to as "pearly." It is sometimes hard to tell a basal cell carcinoma from a benign growth like a flesh-colored mole without performing a biopsy. Some basal cell carcinomas contain melanin pigment, making them look dark rather than shiny.
Basal cell carcinomas grow slowly, taking months or even years to become sizable. Although spread to other parts of the body (metastasis) is very rare, a basal cell carcinoma can damage and disfigure the eye, ear, or nose if it grows nearby.
How Is Basal Cell Carcinoma Diagnosed?
To make a proper diagnosis, doctors perform a biopsy. This usually involves taking a sample by injecting a local anesthesia and scraping a small piece of skin. This method is referred to as a shave biopsy. The skin that is removed is then examined under a microscope to check for cancer cells.