Basal cell carcinoma is the most common cancer in the world, with more than 4 million diagnoses each year. Fortunately, the disease is highly treatable and rarely spreads. Despite millions of cases, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin (the second-most common skin cancer) combine to cause only around 2,000 deaths per year.
Basal cells are a type of cell found at the base of the epidermis, the outermost layer of tissue that makes up skin. Like many skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma can be caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, both through sunlight and through tanning beds. Patients who undergo radiation therapy for other cancers may also develop basal cell carcinoma at the site where radiation was given.
This cancer may develop from actinic keratoses, which are scaly, damaged patches of skin usually caused by sun damage. Actinic keratosis is often found on areas of the body that get lots of sun exposure, like the face, scalp and back of the hands.
Basal cell carcinoma symptoms can include a sore that won’t heal and skin changes, including a lump that differs from nearby skin in color or texture. The lump may be white, red, or brown and feel firm or scaly.
Basal cell carcinoma is usually treated with a simple surgery to remove the growth. In many cases, Mohs surgery is a treatment option. During this procedure, the surgeon removes one layer of tissue at a time, examining each layer for cancer cells. This process continues until no more cancer cells are found.
In addition to surgery, basal cell carcinoma patients sometimes receive cryotherapy, which kills cancer cells with extreme cold, or topical chemotherapy.
Though basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads beyond the area where it first develops, clinical trials may be an option for patients whose disease is very extensive or has metastasized.
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MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.