On the Lookout for Basal Cell Carcinoma Symptoms

Check your skin for signs of basal cell carcinoma. Early detection and treatment can help you avoid complications from this most common form of skin cancer.

woman sunbathing

The perfect tan: If you're in pursuit, take great care in protecting yourself from the sun's harmful rays.

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If you’re going to invest hours in getting the perfect tan, or you work and play outdoors, spend a few minutes every now and then to check for basal cell carcinoma symptoms. You also should consider the potential damage the sun is doing to your skin and take precautions to minimize your risks.

Basal Cell Carcinoma Symptoms

According to The American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer, and basal cell cancer is the most common type. It develops in the top layer of skin, the epidermis, and it usually grows slowly, compared to other cancers.

Basal cell carcinoma symptoms may include:

  • Pearly white bumps with visible blood vessels
  • Open sores that bleed, particularly sores that do not heal completely
  • Scaly reddish or brown patches of skin that may itch or hurt
  • Pink skin growths with elevated borders; blood vessels may form in the growths
  • White or yellow scar-like areas (less common); may signify a more invasive form of basal cell carcinoma

Reduce Your Risk

As it is with other skin cancers (see “Don’t Turn Your Back on Melanoma Symptoms”), exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or manmade sources like tanning beds is the greatest risk factor for basal cell carcinoma. The ultraviolet rays can damage DNA in skin cells, leading to skin cancer.

Not surprisingly, people who work long hours outdoors or spend too much leisure time in the sun may be more susceptible to basal cell cancer. (Note: Click here to read about how important it is to stay hydrated. See also “The Dangers of Dehydration: Swollen Eyes and a Shrunken Brain.”)

People with fair skin, blond or red hair, and light-colored eyes who tend to freckle are at highest risk of basal cell carcinoma. Men and older adults also tend to be at greater risk, but experts note that the number of women and younger adults with basal cell skin cancer is rising.

Take these precautions to help shield your skin against basal cell carcinoma:

  • Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 40 to 50. (Use clear liquids or sunscreen sprays for your scalp.) Apply one ounce of sunscreen 30 minutes before you go out in the sun, and reapply it every two hours you remain outside. If you’re swimming, reapply the sunscreen immediately after you leave the water or towel off. Also, reapply sunscreen frequently if you sweat a lot.
  • As much as you can, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants while you work or play outdoors.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat that covers your face, ears, and the back of your neck.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing that provides an SPF of 15 to 100.
  • Avoid doing outdoor activities between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation is at its peak.
  • Wear sunglasses with a UV coating; make sure the label states that they block 99 to 100 percent of UV rays.

In most cases, basal cell carcinoma symptoms appear in the sun-exposed areas of the face, arms, ears, and the backs of the neck and hands. If you have thinning hair or are balding, you’re also more susceptible to developing basal cell skin cancer on your scalp.

However, basal cell and other types of skin cancer can develop almost anywhere on the body. So it’s important to do a full-body skin exam at least once a month, using both a full-length and a handheld mirror. Recruit your spouse or partner to help with the exam.

See a dermatologist if you notice anything that causes concern. Undergo periodic skin exams with your primary care doctor, and have a baseline exam with a dermatologist, especially if you’re fair-skinned, have high sun exposure, or have a history of skin cancer.

Basal Cell Carcinoma Treatment

In most cases, basal cell cancer is treated with one of several surgical procedures that freeze, scrape, or cut out the lesions. A more complex procedure, Mohs micrographic surgery, may be used to remove cancers in more high-risk and cosmetically delicate areas, like the ears, nose, and eyelids.

Early, superficial basal cell cancers (those only on the surface of the skin) may be treated with imiquimod, a cream that prompts the immune system to attack the cancer, or 5-fluorouracil, a chemotherapy cream or liquid applied to the cancerous lesion.

Advanced basal cell skin cancers that spread may require more broad-based treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two drugs—sonidegib (Odomzo) and vismodegib (Erivedge)—to treat people with locally advanced basal cell cancers who aren’t candidates for surgery or radiation, or basal cell cancers that have spread elsewhere.

Originally posted in May 2016 and updated.

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Jim Black

Jim Black has served as executive editor of Cleveland Clinic’s Men’s Health Advisor newsletter since 2005. He has written about prostate diseases, men’s health, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a wide … Read More

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