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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Basal cell cancer is the most common form of skin cancer diagnosed in the United States.

Basal cells are small, round skin cells normally found in the upper part of your skin. When these cells become cancerous, they grow out of control. Basal cell tumors rarely spread or cause death. But cancerous basal cells usually turn into small skin tumors that can destroy skin and nearby tissues. They can grow large over time, causing damage around and under them.

Basal cell cancer can grow on any part of the body. However, most basal cell cancers are found on some part of the face. This can cause disfigurement, and can interfere with the function of the eyelids, nose, and mouth.

Basal cell cancer often develops because of repeated, long-term exposure to the sun. People with light skin and blue eyes are at particularly high risk. Less often, basal cell cancer may be caused by exposure to arsenic or certain industrial pollutants. Older people who received X-ray treatment for acne as teenagers are at higher risk of developing basal cell cancer.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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