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female doctor examining patient for basal carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for 8 out of 10 cases. This cancer begins in the basal cells of the epidermis (or the surface of the skin), an area that produces new cells as old ones die off. Basal cell carcinoma typically develops in sun-exposed areas of the body and grows very slowly, rarely spreading beyond the skin.

As it develops, basal cell carcinoma can cause several significant symptoms. However, basal cell carcinomas typically don’t hurt, and patients rarely feel anything out of the ordinary. Instead, the warning signs are primarily visual. If left untreated, though, the lesions can begin to itch, bleed or cause pain; they can also become locally invasive, affecting the skin as well as the underlying tissues and bones. Early detection and prompt treatment are key to a successful outcome.

What does basal cell carcinoma look like?

When a person develops basal cell carcinoma, he or she may notice a small mole-shaped bump that doesn’t go away. These lesions are typically skin colored and may have a slightly pearly appearance. Blood vessels may be visible in the lesion, which may frequently bleed and scab over. The lesions are also incredibly fragile and can bleed after a minor injury, such as a shaving nick.

In some cases, basal cell carcinoma can also present as:

  • A small, hard and waxy skin growth
  • A shiny, flat and scaly patch that’s red or pink in color
  • A lump that looks like a pimple
  • A sore with a sunken area in the center
  • A scar-like sore in an area that has not been injured 
  • A nondescript sore that oozes or crusts over 

Most of the time, these lesions appear on parts of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as the head or neck. However, they sometimes appear in areas that are covered, such as the abdomen or legs. 

The importance of regular skin checks

Because basal cell carcinoma has an excellent prognosis when caught early and properly treated, it’s important to discuss any of these symptoms with a dermatologist or skin cancer specialist as soon as they appear. Experienced medical professionals can help determine whether the lesion is basal cell carcinoma or if the symptoms are caused by another skin condition. 

Completing regular skin self-exams can make all the difference when it comes to catching skin cancer in its early stages. Most physicians recommend doing a skin self-exam once a month and making an annual appointment for a skin check by a dermatologist once a year. Here’s how to complete a skin self-exam:

  • Stand in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. You should also have a handheld mirror to look at hard to see areas, like the back of your thighs.
  • Examine your face, ears, neck, chest and abdomen.
  • Lift your arms to view your underarms and also look at your arms, hands, fingers and fingernails.
  • Next, examine the front of your thighs, shins, feet, toes and toenails.
  • Use the handheld mirror to check out the back of your thighs, shins and feet.
  • Still using the handheld mirror, examine your buttocks, genitals, back and the back of your neck and ears.
  • Finally, use the handheld mirror to view your scalp.

During the self-exam, be sure to write down the location and appearance of any moles, blemishes, freckles and other marks on your skin so that you are familiar with them and can discern any changes. This will also help you understand if any new moles or blemishes have appeared since your last skin self-exam. If any of the marks concern you, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.

Basal cell carcinoma treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center

If you’ve been experiencing the symptoms of basal cell carcinoma, you can consult with one of Moffitt Cancer Center’s skilled oncologists. Our Cutaneous Oncology Program specializes in the treatment of patients with various malignancies, including basal cell carcinoma. The oncologists in our Cutaneous Oncology Program focus exclusively on skin cancer and develop individualized treatment plans that take into account the cellular makeup of the cancer, the patient’s overall health and other factors. For many patients, our team completes a surgical excision in which the cancerous lesion as well as a margin of healthy skin is cut out. Another procedure, such as curettage and electrodesiccation, or lymph node surgery, may be the appropriate course of action. Radiation therapy is sometimes recommended after surgery, especially if there is concern about the cancer returning. We also provide immunotherapy and have a robust clinical trials program, ensuring our patients have access to the widest range of therapies for basal cell carcinoma.

To make an appointment with one of our oncologists, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We provide our patients with prompt access to a cancer expert as soon as possible.

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