A basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is a type of skin cancer. There are two main types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. BCC is a non-melanoma skin cancer, and is the most common type (greater than 80%) of all skin cancer. BCC are sometimes referred to as ‘rodent ulcers’.
The commonest cause is too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or from sunbeds. BCC can occur anywhere on your body, but is most common on areas that are often exposed to the sun, i.e. your face, head, neck and ears. It is also possible for a BCC to develop where burns, scars or ulcers have damaged the skin. BCC is not infectious.
BCC mainly affects fair skinned adults, but other skin types are also at risk.
Those with the highest risk of developing a basal cell carcinoma are:
Apart from a rare familial condition called Gorlin’s syndrome, BCCs are not hereditary. However some of the things that increase the risk of getting one (e.g. a fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, and freckling) do run in families.
BCC can vary greatly in their appearance, but people often first become aware of them as a scab that bleeds occasionally and does not heal completely. Some BCC are very superficial and look like a scaly red flat mark; others have a pearl-like rim surrounding a central crater. If left for years the latter type can eventually erode the skin causing an ulcer; hence the name “rodent ulcer”. Other BCC are quite lumpy, with one or more shiny nodules crossed by small but easily seen blood vessels. Most BCC are painless, although sometimes can be itchy or bleed if caught on clothes or picked up.
Sometimes the diagnosis is clear from its appearance. If further investigation is necessary to confirm the diagnosis then a small area of the abnormal skin (a biopsy) or the entire lesion (an excision biopsy) may be cut out and examined under the microscope. You will be given a local anaesthetic beforehand to numb the skin.
Yes, BCCs can be cured in almost every case, although treatment becomes complicated if they have been neglected for a very long time, or if they are in an awkward place, such as near the eye, nose or ear.
BCCs never spread to other parts of the body except very rarely (fewer than 1 in 20) if neglected for years, when it may spread to draining lymph nodes. Hence, although it is a type of skin cancer it rarely endangers life.
The commonest treatment for BCC is surgery. Usually, this means cutting away the BCC, along with some clear skin around it, using local anaesthetic to numb the skin. The skin can usually be closed with a few stitches, but sometimes a small skin flap or graft is needed.
Other types of treatment include:
To download an information leafet on Mohs micrographic surgery, click here
Surgical excision is the preferred treatment, but the choice of other treatments depends on the site and size of the BCC, the condition of the surrounding skin and number of BCC to be treated (some people have multiple ) as well as the overall state of health of each person to be treated.
Treatment will be much easier if your BCC is detected early. BCC can vary in their appearance, but it is advisable to see your doctor if you have any marks or scabs on your skin which are:
Check your skin for changes once a month. A friend or family member can help you particularly with checking areas that you cannot easily inspect, such as your back.
You can also take some simple precautions to help prevent a BCC appearing:
The evidence relating to the health effects of serum Vitamin D levels, sunlight exposure and Vitamin D intake remains inconclusive. Avoiding all sunlight exposure if you suffer from light sensitivity, or to reduce the risk of melanoma and other skin cancers, may be associated with Vitamin D deficiency.
Individuals avoiding all sun exposure should consider having their serum Vitamin D measured. If levels are reduced or deficient they may wish to consider taking supplementary vitamin D3, 10-25 micrograms per day, and increasing their intake of foods high in Vitamin D such as oily fish, eggs, meat, fortified margarines and cereals. Vitamin D3 supplements are widely available from health food shops.