Harvard Women's Health Watch

Recognizing and treating basal cell carcinoma

It's the most common skin cancer and the least dangerous — but it's far from a trivial matter.

With summer around the corner, our thoughts and plans naturally turn to outdoor activities and the opportunity to bask in the warmth of the sun. But there's a dark side to the time we spend in the sun — it's called a tan. Despite its association with prosperity, good looks, and good health, a tan in reality is a sign that the sun has damaged the skin cells. For some people, such damage can result in skin cancer. The sun is the chief cause of more than 1.3 million skin cancers each year in the United States.

There are three main types. Melanoma is probably the most familiar — not because it's common but because it's so deadly. It accounts for only 4% of skin cancers but 75% of skin cancer deaths. A second type, squamous cell carcinoma, occurs three times more often than melanoma. Although it's less serious, it can metastasize and cause extensive damage. About 3%–4% of people with squamous cell carcinoma die from the disease.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »