Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer in Canada.

This type of skin cancer is the least dangerous, but it must be treated. Otherwise it will continue to grow, invading and destroying surrounding skin tissue, eventually causing disfigurement.

Basal cell skin cancers usually appear on sun-exposed areas, most commonly the face and neck but also the trunk, arms and legs. The appearance of this skin cancer can vary.

Early warning signs
  • firm, flesh-coloured or slightly reddish bump, often with a pearly border; may have small surface blood vessels giving it a red colour
  • whitish scar where there is no reason for scarring
  • sore or pimple-like growth that bleeds, crusts over and then reappears
  • small, red scaling patch most often seen on trunk or limbs

Any sore that does not heal within four weeks should be examined by your dermatologist.

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the prime cause of this skin cancer. Frequent severe sunburns and intense sun exposure in childhood increase the risk of basal cell skin cancer in adulthood.

The people most at risk are:

  • those who have blond or red hair, and skin that burns easily from sun exposure
  • people who have increased risk from long sun exposure over the life span, especially those over age 50
  • organ transplant patients whose immune systems are compromised

These tumours are now being seen in teenagers and in people in their early 20s. More men get this disease than women. People who have already had one basal cell skin cancer have higher risk for developing another.

Treatment options depend on the tumour (size, location, subtype) and the patient’s health status. Your dermatologist will discuss treatment options with you. Some treatment options are: simple surgical excision or a procedure called electrodessication and curettage. Topical creams that modulate the immune system are also used for some forms of this skin cancer. Other treatment modalities such as PDT (photodynamic therapy) may also be used in certain circumstances.

For more complicated tumours, a specialized form of surgery called Mohs surgery is used. Performed by a dermatologist trained in this technique, Mohs surgery has a high success rate. It is indicated for large or recurrenttumours or those near nose and eyes.

Vismodegib, an oral medication, has been approved to treat advanced basal cell cancers that have spread to other parts of the body.