Skin Cancer or Pimple? Basal Cell Carcinoma Causes and Treatments

Basal cell carcinoma can resemble a blemish, scar, or sore

Sure, you’d notice an irregular mole on your face and head to your dermatologist to check it out right away. However, would you recognize a more subtle sign of skin cancer

Keely Jones, the owner of a North Carolina–based beauty company, shared frightening photos of the only sign of her basal cell carcinoma: A red blemish that looked like your run-of-the-mill pimple.

"See that tiny dot in the first pic? That's all that showed on the surface," Jones wrote on Facebook detailing the diagnosis and treatment. As it turns out, cancer cells lurked under the skin's surface. Ultimately, Jones needed three procedures to remove all of it.

While getting a facial, a beautician brought the pimple-like mark to Jones's attention. The beautician had noticed the reddish spot and suggested Jones see a dermatologist. 

What Is Basal Cell Carcinoma?

Basal cell carcinoma is one of the most common forms of skin cancer, usually developing in places that see the most sun, like the face, head, neck, and back of the hands. Other common areas include the shoulders, arms, and legs.

Abnormal, uncontrolled growth of basal cells causes basal cell carcinoma. That type of skin cancer tends to grow slowly. Usually, basal cell carcinoma is curable and causes minimal damage if you catch and treat it early.

Basal Cell Carcinoma Signs and Symptoms

Those suspicious spots are often pinkish or take on the color of your skin. Sometimes, they're shiny, scaly, or waxy. Basal cell carcinoma might also bleed, ooze, and crust over, as Jones experienced.

While basal cell carcinoma can resemble a pimple or a blemish, they don't behave like one. 

"Picture a pimple that seems to heal, only to return again," Ariel Ostad, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University, told Health.

Basal cell carcinoma signs and symptoms include:

  • Pink or reddish growth that dips in the center
  • Growth or scaly patch on or near your ear
  • Sore that doesn't heal or heals and returns
  • Scaly, slightly raised patch of irritated skin
  • Round growth that may be the same color as your skin
  • Spot on the skin that feels a bit scaly or looks like an age spot
  • Scar-like mark on your skin that may be skin-colored or waxy

When To See a Healthcare Provider

Talk to a dermatologist immediately if you find a spot that’s changing, growing, or bleeding. When detected early, basal cell carcinoma is highly treatable. However, without medical attention, the cancer cells can spread, destroying skin, tissue, and even bone.

Treatment for Basal Cell Carcinoma

When possible, the main treatment for basal cell carcinoma is surgical removal. There are three surgeries, depending on the location and how deep the cancer cells are beneath the skin.

Those surgeries include:

  • Excision: With excision, a dermatologist cuts out the cancer cells along with some skin around the affected area.
  • Mohs surgery: This type of surgery involves cutting away thin layers of skin in stages. Mohs surgery minimizes the removal of healthy tissue and leaves the smallest possible scar.
  • Curettage and electrodesiccation: This process involves scraping away the cancer cells. Then, the dermatologist will use heat to destroy any cancer cells that may remain.

Other treatments include cryotherapy, which involves freezing away the cancer cells, or light therapy.

How To Prevent Basal Cell Carcinoma

You can do some things to reduce your risk of basal cell carcinoma and other skin cancers. For example, protecting your skin from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and avoiding tanning beds or indoor tanning equipment are key.

Protect your skin from skin cancer by taking the following steps:

  • Seek shade outdoors or limit your time outside from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the UV index is highest.
  • Wear a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 daily.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeve shirt, and sunglasses, while outdoors.

According to Jones, she hardly used tanning beds and avoided the sun. Still, she stated her hope that the graphic photos would raise awareness.

"I hesitated to share these pics because I know it may be gross or shocking to see in your newsfeeds. But if this post encourages even ONE person to set up a dermatology appointment and be checked, then it's worth it," Jones wrote on Facebook. "If you've never been to the #dermatologist or it's been a while since [your] last visit... please call them ASAP."

If you've had basal cell carcinoma, you have a higher risk of other skin cancers, including melanoma, the most dangerous type. Regularly checking your skin and seeing a dermatologist can help catch and treat skin cancers early.

A Quick Review

Basal cell carcinoma is one of the most common types of skin cancer. Usually, basal cell carcinoma develops on areas of skin with a lot of sun exposure and causes minimal damage if you catch and treat it early.

Basal cell carcinoma can look many different ways, and some people may mistake it for a pimple or sore. Consult a healthcare provider if you notice a spot that won't heal or is changing or growing.

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  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Basal cell carcinoma.

  2. Skin Cancer Foundation. Basal cell carcinoma overview.

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