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What Is Basal Cell Carcinoma? - Types, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
Basal cell carcinoma sounds frightening, but most cases aren't serious. The most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma affects millions of people every year, and treatment is important.

The Most Common Type of Skin Cancer

Soaking up the sun feels good, and it can improve your mood to be outside on a clear, bright day. But if you don't take steps to protect yourself from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation, you're putting yourself at risk of developing skin cancer. There are many types of skin cancer, but basal cell carcinoma is the most common. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, millions of people are diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma every year, and it accounts for most new cases of skin cancer.

The basal cells are found in the stratum basale, the deepest layer of the epidermis, just above the boundary with the dermis.
epidermis

Basal cell carcinoma affects a certain type of skin cells called basal cells. Your basal cells make up the deepest layer of your epidermis, which is your outermost layer of skin. The good news about basal cell carcinoma is that it rarely metastasizes, or spreads, to other areas of the body. Because when cancer cells spread, it becomes difficult to treat the disease.

When you slough off dead skin, those cells have to be replaced, and it's the job of the basal cells to provide the replacements. Thus, basal cells are constantly dividing to create new skin cells.

Cancer in basal cells tends to occur in spots that have a lot of sun exposure. Anywhere you've been sunburned one too many times is a likely place for basal cell carcinoma to develop; however, the neck and face are two of the most common areas for basal cell carcinomas. Older people are more likely to have basal cell carcinoma because of accumulated sun exposure, but more and more young people are getting this type of cancer.

Symptoms of Basal Cell Carcinoma

The most obvious and common symptom of basal cell carcinoma is a sore or red patch or growth that doesn't seem to want to heal. This type of cancer also can take other forms. It might look like a waxy, white bump, either with or without blood vessels visible on its surface. On darker skin, it could be a brown, waxy bump. These bumps are often scabbed over or include open sores. Basal cell carcinoma can also appear as a flat, scaly patch that gets bigger over time. In rare cases, you might develop a white, waxy growth that looks like a scar.

Basal cell carcinomas most often occur on skin that gets a lot of sun exposure, like the face.
basal cell carcinoma

Types of Basal Cell Carcinoma

The most common type of basal cell carcinoma is nodular, which presents as a waxy or pearly white bump. A micronodular form of the cancer is similar, but the bump might be smaller and have a well-defined edge. Infiltrative basal cell carcinoma has thin strands extending from the main tumor. Superficial basal cell carcinoma is a tumor that hasn't grown very large or deep and is easy to remove. A rare type of the cancer - morpheaform- looks like a scar and can be easy to overlook. It's invasive and can be disfiguring if not caught and treated.

Treatments

Most cases of basal cell carcinoma are treated by removing it from the skin. If you have a simple and small tumor, like a superficial basal cell carcinoma, it can be easily removed with a low-risk, outpatient procedure. A small basal cell carcinoma can be treated using electrodessication and curettage, which involves scraping it off and then using an electric needle to cauterize the wound, or by freezing it off with liquid nitrogen.

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