Basal cell carcinoma: Who gets and causes
Anyone can get this common skin cancer, but some people have a greater risk. People with a greater risk of getting basal cell carcinoma (BCC) have one or more of the following risk factors:
Your physical traits
- Light-colored or freckled skin.
- Blue, green, or gray eyes.
- Blond or red hair.
- An inability to tan.
What you’ve done
- Spent a lot of time outdoors for work or leisure, without using sunscreen or covering up with clothing.
- Frequently used tanning beds.
Your medical history
- If you had one BCC, your risk for developing a second one increases by about 40%.
- Close blood relative had BCC.
- Taking one or more drugs that suppress the body’s immune system. People take these drugs after receiving an organ transplant and to treat a medical condition, such as severe arthritis, lymphoma, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
- Overexposure or long-term exposure to x-rays, such as patients who received x-ray treatments for acne in the 1940s.
Risk of developing many BCCs by 20 years of age
Some people are born with a rare condition that makes them more likely to develop many skin cancers, including basal cell cancers, early in life. BCC can develop by 20 years of age in people who have a rare medical condition known as basal cell nevus syndrome.
What causes BCC?
Unlike many cancers, the cause of BCC is well known:
- Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds cause BCC.
When UV rays from the sun or tanning beds hit our skin, these rays damage the DNA in the cells of our skin. The body tries to repair this damage. When the rays repeatedly hit our skin, the body cannot repair the damage.
When the body cannot repair the damage, skin cancer develops. Skin cancer usually develops after years of sun exposure. Around 50 years of age, the risk of developing skin cancer increases significantly.
People much younger than 50 years of age also get BCC. Most of these people are women who use indoor tanning beds. Many of these BCCs could be prevented if the women never tanned indoors.
American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts and Figures 2012. p. 21-22.
Carucci JA, Leffell DJ.”Basal Cell Carcinoma” In: Wolff K et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th edition. USA. McGraw Hill Medical; 2008, p. 1036-42.
Ferrucci LM, Cartmel B, Molinaro AM et al. “Indoor tanning and risk of early-onset basal cell
Carcinoma.” J Am Acad Dermatol 10.1016/j.jaad.2011.11.940. (Article in Press).
Telfer NL et al. “Guidelines for the management of basal cell carcinoma.” Brit J of Dermatol 2008 159;35-48.
Wong CSM, et al. “Clinical review: Basal cell carcinoma.” BMJ 2003 Oct 4;327:794-798.
Basal cell carcinoma