Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. In fact, it is the most common of all cancers. At least 800,000 Americans each year are diagnosed with this disease.
Most people who get basal cell carcinoma are middle-aged or elderly. The disease used to be found primarily in older men who had spent many years doing outdoor work. However, basal cell carcinoma is now being diagnosed in increasing numbers of women and younger people as well, a trend that is believed to be related to increased sun exposure.
Basal cell carcinoma begins in the bottom part of the epidermis, the topmost of the three layers of the skin. It is a slow-growing cancer. Basal cell carcinomas usually don't spread to lymph nodes or metastasize (spread to distant parts of the body).
Basal cell carcinomas can be cured in about 95 percent of all patients. However, this does not mean that the disease can be safely ignored. If a basal cell carcinoma is left untreated, it can grow larger, and it may damage tissues beneath the skin, even going as deep as the bone. In very rare instances, a basal cell carcinoma that has been left untreated can be fatal.
Who Is at Risk?
People who have light-colored skin (especially the type of skin that forms freckles easily), red or blond hair, and blue, green, or gray eyes have a higher-than-average risk of basal cell carcinoma. Sun exposure is a key risk factor. Basal cell carcinoma is most likely to develop on parts of the body that are often exposed to the sun. Other risk factors include exposure to arsenic or radiation or complications occurring in places on the skin where there are scars, burns, or tattoos.
Diagnosing Basal Cell Carcinoma
A basal cell carcinoma can have several different appearances. It can be a shiny bump, a sore that heals and then forms again, a pink-colored growth, an irritated reddish patch, or a waxy scar. Sometimes, a basal cell carcinoma may resemble psoriasis or eczema. An examination by a physician is necessary to determine which kind of skin disease is present. If the doctor suspects a basal cell carcinoma, a procedure called a biopsy will be performed, in which a sample of the abnormal area is collected and sent to a laboratory for examination.