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Skin Cancer Explained

Basal cell carcinoma: what you need to know

Basal cell carcinoma is one of the most common forms of skin cancer. The good news is that it can be treated.
MoleMap Team
January 29, 2024
5 minutes

Basal cell carcinoma is a non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), along with squamous cell carcinoma. The exact rates of non-melanoma skin cancers among the Australian population are unknown. But what we do know is that they’re high and increasing. Estimates suggest there are more than 400,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer each year.

Keep reading to find out about the warning signs. Plus, check out real basal cell carcinoma pictures and learn about survival rates.

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What is a basal cell carcinoma?

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It accounts for around 70% of all non melanoma skin cancers. Basal cell carcinoma skin cancer arises from the overproduction of abnormal basal cells. This is a result of DNA damage from over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. 

So, it’s no surprise that basal cell skin lesions usually appear on areas of the body often exposed to the sun. This includes the face, neck, head, back and shoulders. The tumour itself forms in the basal cells (hence the name), found in the top layer of the skin (the epidermis).

There are three basal cell carcinoma types:

  • Nodular basal cell carcinoma — appearing as a round or raised lump
  • Superficial — present as a wider patch, limited to the top layer of the skin
  • Infiltrating — usually not visible to the naked eye, so often they aren’t detected until they reach an advanced stage

Images of different types of  basal cell carcinomas.
Basal cell carcinoma signs and symptoms can look markedly different from one individual to another.  If you see a new, changing, or odd-looking spot on your skin, book a skin check. 

Basal cell carcinoma symptoms

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) can appear as a small round shiny bump or a flat scaly patch. Most of the time they are painless, but in some instances they can itch or bleed. Because the change to the skin is often small, it can be easily missed. 

Basal-cell carcinoma symptoms and warning signs can include:

  • A shiny or pearly, slightly raised bump
  • A scaly area (may be light or bright pink)
  • A sore that won’t heal or heals and then becomes worse
  • A small pink lesion with raised edges. It may have a crusty patch in the centre or tiny blood vessels
  • A scar-like patch. The skin is flat, taut and may be white or yellowish in colour

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Basal cell carcinoma pictures

Basal cell carcinoma signs and symptoms can look markedly different from one individual to another. These basal cell carcinoma images act only as a general guide. If you see a new, changing, or odd-looking spot on your skin, book a skin check.

Illustration of different areas of the body where basal cell carcinoma may occurr.
Basal cell skin lesions usually appear on areas of the body often exposed to the sun. This includes the face, neck, head, back and shoulders.

Find out more about the different types of moles you might find on your skin here.

Who’s at risk of basal cell carcinoma?

Over-exposure to UV rays from sunlight is the most common cause of basal cell carcinoma. Given Australia’s high UV levels, we are all at risk of developing basal cell carcinoma.

However, for some individuals, their risk may be higher. This includes people:

  • With a large number of moles
  • Who have fair skin and blonde or red hair
  • With a previous personal or family history of skin cancer
  • With a history of sunburn 
  • Who work or spend a significant amount of time outdoors

How is basal cell carcinoma diagnosed?

A skin cancer is diagnosed clinically, dermatoscopically (under the skin) and cellularly (under a microscope). If you notice any changes to your skin, it’s essential to have a thorough skin check. At MoleMap skin cancer clinic, any suspicious lesions are dermoscopically imaged and sent for dermatologist diagnosis.

A melanographer examines the patient's skin to determine if any of the lesions can be skin cancer.
At MoleMap skin cancer clinics, any suspicious lesions are dermoscopically imaged and sent for dermatologist diagnosis.

Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to the lymph nodes. Yet, if left undetected, it can grow deeper into the skin. This may result in more aggressive treatment. A biopsy may be taken to check if it’s basal cell carcinoma, but also to determine if the tumour is low or high risk.

Basal cell carcinoma treatment (and survival rates)

The good news is that most basal cell carcinomas can be successfully treated. The most common skin cancer treatment is surgery. This involves removing the cancer and a margin of healthy tissue from the surrounding area. The tissue sample is sent to a pathologist for inspection under the microscope. If the tissue believed to be ‘healthy’ is free from cancerous cells, no further treatment is needed. If cancerous cells are present, a second basal-cell carcinoma surgery (excision) is likely. 

 Other skin cancer treatment options include:

Topical medicationstopical creams or liquids to activate the immune system to attack cancerous cells

Photodynamic therapy–—a combination of light and topical medication

Cryotherapy—liquid nitrate is used to destroy the tumour

Radiation therapy—high dose radiation kills or slows the cancer cells

Patient undergoes skin cancer treatment at MoleMap.
The good news is that most basal cell carcinomas can be successfully treated and cccording to the Canadian Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for basal cell carcinoma is 100%.

What about the survival rates? The outlook for people diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma is positive. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for basal cell carcinoma is 100%. Yet, know that basal cell carcinoma may recur, particularly during the first year. It can also develop in a new area of the body, so it pays to be vigilant.

Prevention and early detection

The most effective way to prevent basal cell carcinomas is to protect your skin against the sun’s UV rays.

This includes:

  • Wearing sunscreen (ideally SPF 50+)
  • Limit your sun exposure when the UV index is higher than 3 (typically between 10am and 3pm)
  • Seek shade and wear clothing and accessories (brimmed hat and sunglasses) that offer protection against the sun

Regular skin checks are a great way to monitor for skin cancer symptoms. At MoleMap skin cancer clinics, we use start-of-the-art imaging to see signs of skin cancer not visible to the naked eye. Our head-to-toe skin check is the ideal way to check out a new or suspicious spot. It includes a thorough skin assessment and dermoscopic imaging, followed by a dermatologist diagnosis. SkinCheck+ includes all the benefits of a skin check, but with the added bonus of full body imaging. This means you can compare any changes to your skin over time. Full Body MoleMap is our most comprehensive service. It includes a full-body skin assessment, total body photography, additional dermoscopic imaging of mole that may be at risk, and unlimited free spot checks for 12 months.

All of our skin services ensure no spot is left unchecked. You get the peace of mind that basal cell carcinoma or other skin cancers will be detected early—when they’re most treatable.

Keep your skin in check. Check out your nearest MoleMap location.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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