Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, affecting 50 to 60,000 Canadians each year. In fact, it is the most common of all cancers. One out of every three new cancers is a skin cancer, and the vast majority are basal cell carcinomas, often referred to by the abbreviation, BCC. These cancers arise in the basal cells, which are at the bottom of the epidermis (outer skin layer). Until recently, those most often affected were older people, particularly men who had worked outdoors. Although the number of new cases has increased sharply each year in the last few decades, the average age of onset of the disease has steadily decreased. More women are getting BCCs than in the past; nonetheless, men still outnumber women.
The Major Cause
Chronic exposure to sunlight is the cause of almost all basal cell carcinomas, which occur most frequently on exposed parts of the body -- the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back. Rarely, however, tumours develop on non-exposed areas. In a few cases, contact with arsenic, genetic factors, exposure to radiation, and complications of burns, scars, vaccinations or even tattoos are contributing factors.
Who Gets It
Anyone with a history of frequent sun exposure can develop BCC. But people who have fair skin, blonde or red hair and blue, green, or gray eyes are at highest risk. Those whose occupations require long hours outdoors or who spend extensive leisure time in the sun are in particular jeopardy.
Transplant patients on long-term immunosuppressive drugs are at higher risk for the development of BCC.
What to Look For
- A reddish patch or irritated area, frequently occurring on the chest, shoulders, arms or legs.
- Sometimes the patch crusts.
- It may also itch or hurt.
- At other times, it persists with no noticeable discomfort.
- This warning sign can indicate the presence of an aggressive tumour.
Frequently, two or more features are present in one tumour. In addition, basal cell carcinoma sometimes resembles non-cancerous skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. Only a trained physician, usually a specialist in diseases of the skin, can decide for sure. Learn the signs of basal cell carcinoma, and examine your skin regularly -- once a month, or more often if you are at high risk. Be sure to include the scalp, backs of ears, neck, and other hard-to-see areas. (A full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror can be very useful). If you observe any of the warning signs or some other change in your skin, consult your physician immediately. The Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation advises people to have a total-body skin exam by a dermatologist at regular intervals. The physician will suggest the correct time frame for follow-up visits, depending on your specific risk factors, such as skin type and history of sun exposure.