A basal cell carcinoma is a form of skin cancer that is the result of sun damage to the skin. They enlarge slowly and steadily and can invade neighboring tissue, like the eye, but they usually do not spread to distant parts of the body (metastasize). The only way to tell for sure if a skin growth is cancerous is to biopsy it.
This involves removing a small piece of the skin and having a pathologist look at it under the microscope in a medical laboratory. A biopsy does not remove the cancer, it only takes off the very top (like the tip of an iceberg). Sometimes the skin will heal after the biopsy because it grows over the cancer. This does not mean the cancer is gone, it means it is now covered with a blanket of skin. If the carcinoma is not removed completely it can go deep into the skin and cause great harm.
What causes this form of skin cancer?
- Repeated, prolonged sun exposure causes skin damage which may develop into basal cell carcinoma.
- The sun damage responsible usually occurred years before the cancer begins.
- They are most common on the face because the face receives more sunlight than other parts of the body.
- Fair-skinned individuals are more prone to skin cancer than darker persons, since skin pigment protects the skin. Persons of African ancestry with very dark skin practically never get this form of skin cancer.
- People who get oneare very likely to develop more. Often people will develop a second basal cell carcinoma close to the spot were one has been treated because the surrounding skin is just as damaged by the sun as the skin where the first one grew.
Prevention is Possible
- Sun exposure and sunbathing produce gradual skin damage even if sunburn is avoided. Ten to forty years can pass between the time of sun exposure and the development of skin cancer.
- Sun damage is permanent and irreversible. You should put on sun-screen or moisturizer with an SPF of 15 or higher every day before leaving the house. Don’t go overboard and try to avoid the sun completely. The damage is already done; a little more sun will not make much difference. Also sun provides important Vitamin D that your body needs.
- People who have had a basal cell carcinoma should have a skin exam every six months to one year.
Treating Basal Cell Carcinomas
- We cannot be sure whether a suspicious growth is a form of skin cancer just by looking at it. In order to be sure, a dermatologist must take a small piece of the growth and send it for microscopic analysis (biopsy). The skin will often heal after a biopsy. This is because the skin grows over the cancer like a blanket.
- After a biopsy has been done and a basal cell carcinoma is found by the pathologist, the tumor needs to be removed. They are not cured by doing a biopsy – further surgery is required.
- Surgery will always leave a scar. There is no way to remove a cancer without leaving a scar, but it can oftentimes be hidden in the skin folds. They are often much bigger under the skin than they appear on the surface. What one can see on the surface is only the tip of the iceberg. That is why the hole left after removing a basal cell cancer is often much larger than what can be seen before surgery.
- There are a number of potential surgical options, including Mohs, radiation, chemo, electrodessication and various others. Your doctor will discuss the various procedures with you and help you determine which one is ideal for your particular situation.
- The most important point about skin cancer is it needs to be completely removed. Many people have lost body parts because of these tumors and some people have even lost their lives.
What should I do if I suspect a cancerous growth?
- As soon as you notice something on your body that resembles any of the pictures on this page, make an appointment with your dermatologist as soon as possible. The earlier you take care of it, the better off you will be.
- Don’t panic and assume the worst. Even if it turns out to be basal cell carcinoma which is the most common cancer, it is very treatable and prognosis is excellent if it is treated quickly.