Basal Cell Carcinoma: Causes, Risks, Symptoms, Treatment

Skin cancers represent the most common form of cancer in the U.S. And basal cell carcinoma ranks as the most common skin cancer. Let’s find out more about this common cancer.


Carcinoma is the medical term for cancer. ‘Basal cell’ refers to a type of skin cell. It follows, then, that basal cell carcinoma is a cancer that occurs in the layers of the skin. Skin cancers come in two basic types: melanoma and non-melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma is a non-melanoma cancer. This does not mean it’s benign. It is a true cancer, which means it can spread to surrounding tissues, though this is rare. However, basal cell carcinoma is not an aggressive type of cancer. It is slow-growing and highly treatable.


The main cause of basal cell carcinoma is sun exposure. But it’s not usually caused by sun exposure as an adult. Usually, basal cell carcinoma arises in adults over age 40 due to the sun exposure they experienced as children or young adults. You can help your own children avoid getting basal cell carcinomas by shielding them from too much sun exposure. Use hats, clothing and sunscreen to keep the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays from hitting your child’s skin. Because sun exposure is the major culprit in basal cell carcinoma, it routinely arises on the scalp, face, shoulders and back.


Not everyone exposed to excessive ultraviolet light will develop basal cell carcinoma. Some things make you more likely to get this particular skin cancer than other people:

  • Over age 40
  • Fair skin
  • Freckled skin
  • Blonde or red hair
  • Lots of moles
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A history of many serious sunburns as a child
  • Long-term sun exposure, such as from working outdoors for hours at a time
  • Multiple exposures to other forms of radiation (such as x-rays), especially as a child


You should examine your skin regularly for signs of skin cancer of any type. Look for these signs, and then take a photo using your camera or cell phone to document any changes in skin lesions:

  • New skin bumps. These may be any color, from pearly to brown.
  • A lesion that never itched before but itches now.
  • A lesion that bleeds easily.
  • A lesion that oozes or develops a crust.
  • A lesion that looks like a scar, although you’ve never injured the skin in that area.
  • A lesion that is depressed (concave) in the center.

If you notice any of these signs, consult a doctor.


Because basal cell carcinoma is slow-growing, it often can be cured simply by removing it. This is especially true when the cancer is caught early. Your doctor may want to take a biopsy of the lesion to see if it’s cancerous. You also can opt to have the lesion removed, regardless, and have the entire lesion sent to the lab afterwards to determine if it’s cancerous.

Basal cell carcinoma may be treated by freezing the cells (cryosurgery) or by removing the tissue through surgery. The surgery to remove a basal cell carcinoma usually involves simply numbing the skin with an injection and then cutting out the small area of cancerous tissue. You may need a stitch or two to close the wound.


Basal cell cancer often is 100% cured by freezing or surgery. However, it can come back. When it does come back, it is not more aggressive the way some cancers can be. Many people wind up having multiple basal cell carcinomas removed over their lifetime, with no ill effects.

Rarely, basal cell cancer may spread into surrounding tissue. This happens most frequently on the face (where the cancer may move into nasal tissue, for example) when a lesion goes undiagnosed for a long time.


If you received a lot of sun exposure as a child, there may not be much you can do now to prevent a basal cell carcinoma from developing. Still, you should always use sunscreen and protective clothing to avoid excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

Your best bet as an adult is to examine your skin regularly and document any suspicious lesions with photographs. As a parent, protect your children from excessive sun exposure so they can enjoy a long, skin cancer-free life.