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Learning About Basal Cell Skin Cancer

Basal skin cancer

Your Care Instructions

Basal cell skin cancer (carcinoma) is a type of skin cancer. It most often appears on areas of the body that have been exposed to the sun. These areas include the head, face, neck, back, chest, or shoulders. The nose is the most common site.

This cancer grows slowly and does not usually spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. It is almost always cured when it is found early and treated.

This skin cancer is usually caused by too much sun. Using tanning beds or sunlamps can also cause it.

What are the symptoms?

Signs of basal cell carcinoma include:

  • Any firm, pearly bump with tiny blood vessels that look spidery.
  • Any red, tender, flat spot that bleeds easily.
  • Any small, fleshy bump with a smooth, pearly appearance. It may have a sunken centre.
  • Any smooth, shiny bump that may look like a mole or cyst.
  • Any patch of skin, especially on the face, that looks like a scar and is firm to the touch.
  • Any bump that itches, bleeds, crusts over, and then repeats the cycle and has not healed in a few weeks.
  • Any change in the size, shape, or colour of a mole or a skin growth.

How is it treated?

Your doctor will want to remove all of the cancer. There are several ways to remove it. It depends on how big it is, where it is on your body, and your age and overall health. Treatment options include:

  • Surgery to cut out the cancer.
  • Mohs micrographic surgery. This surgery removes the skin cancer one layer at a time, checking each layer for cancer cells right after it is removed.
  • Curettage and electrosurgery. Curettage uses a spoon-shaped instrument (curette) to scrape off the skin cancer, and electrosurgery controls the bleeding and destroys any remaining cancer cells.
  • Cryosurgery. Cryosurgery destroys the skin cancer by freezing it with liquid nitrogen.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. It may be done if surgery isn't an option.

Other treatment options include chemotherapy cream and photodynamic therapy.

If your doctor removes the cancer, he or she will send it to a lab. The lab makes sure it is a basal cell cancer and that it all was removed. If cancer is still there, you may need more treatment.

How can you prevent it?

  • Always wear a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves and pants when you are outdoors.
  • Avoid the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., which is the peak time for UV rays.
  • Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin. Make sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Use it every day, even when it is cloudy.
  • Do not use tanning booths or sunlamps.
  • Use lip balm or cream that has sun protection factor (SPF) to protect your lips from getting sunburned.
  • Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • You see a change in your skin, such as a growth or mole that:
    • Grows bigger. This may happen slowly.
    • Changes colour.
    • Changes shape.
    • Starts to bleed easily.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.