A skin cancer, usually affecting sun-exposed areas, that rarely spreads elsewhere in the body
- Rare in people under the age of 40; increasingly common over 40
- More common in males
- Fair-skinned people are most at risk
- Exposure to the sun and the use of sunbeds are risk factors
The most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma is also the least dangerous because it usually remains localized and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. This cancer should not be left untreated because it can destroy bone and surrounding skin.
Basal cell carcinoma is characterized by pearly lesions that can occur on any part of the body but commonly appear on the face, often at the corner of an eye, near the ear, or on the nose.
The condition is usually caused by exposure to strong sunlight, which damages cells just below the surface of the skin. Fair-skinned people over the age of 40 are most susceptible.
You can minimize your risk of developing basal cell carcinoma by avoiding prolonged exposure to sunlight, avoiding the use of sunbeds, and by protecting your skin when you are outdoors (see Safety in the sun).
What are the symptoms?
Basal cell carcinoma grows slowly over months or even years. A typical lesion develops in the following way:
A small, painless lump appears; it has a smooth surface with blood vessels, a pink to brownish-grey colour, and a waxy or pearl-like border.
The lump gradually grows, usually spreading outwards and developing a central depression with rolled edges.
An untreated lump may form a shallow ulcer that may bleed intermittently and then form a scab but never fully heals.
You should check your skin regularly for any unusual changes (see Checking your skin) and consult your doctor promptly if you notice any such changes.
What might be done?
If your doctor suspects basal cell carcin-oma, he or she will probably arrange for you to have a skin biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. During this procedure, a small lesion may be scraped away or frozen off. A large lesion may need to be removed surgically. If you have several lesions or if the affected area is difficult to treat surgically (for example, if it is near the eye), you may need to have radiotherapy. If the cancer has caused damage to underlying tissue, you may need plastic surgery.
What is the prognosis?
About 9 in 10 people who develop basal cell carcinoma are successfully treated. There should be no further problems after treatment, but in a few cases the skin cancer may recur.
If you have already had an episode of basal cell carcinoma, you are more likely to develop further cancerous lesions on other parts of your body, usually within a period of 2–5 years. For this reason, you should continue to protect yourself against exposure to sunlight, avoid using sunbeds, and inspect your skin regularly. Your doctor will probably recommend that you have periodic checkups in order to detect and treat any new lesions that develop while they are still small.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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