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Basal Cell Carcinoma : Skin cancer and the history of tanning

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer and the least dangerous—but it’s far from a trivial matter, reports the May issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch. The good news is that basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads (metastasizes), and it can easily be treated and cured when discovered early.

Basal cell skin cancers almost always occur in areas exposed to the sun: 80% show up on the head and neck. The face is particularly vulnerable. The most common form—nodular—usually shows up as a shiny bump and may bleed easily. It often ulcerates and crusts over. Superficial basal cell carcinoma forms a red, scaly, sometimes itchy spot and may have flecks of dark pigment. It’s often mistaken for a patch of dermatitis. Morpheaform, a rarer and more aggressive type, has a waxy white or yellow scarlike appearance and poorly defined borders.

Basal cell carcinoma grows slowly and occurs mostly in people over age 55. Sun exposure is the biggest risk factor. Treatment options include freezing, surgical removal, radiation, and topical creams. Each has a cure rate of 90% or more for first-time cancers.

The article also discusses the trends in tanning, which has not always been in fashion. Before the 20th century, for example, tan skin suggested outdoor labor and a lower social status, says Harvard Women’s Health Watch. The switch to the tanning as socially desirable and fashionable came in the 1920s, after French designer Coco Chanel returned from a Riviera holiday sporting a bronzed look.

Also in this issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • Women's Health Initiative: Not over yet
  • In Brief: Link found between abdominal fat and gallbladder surgery
  • In Brief: Unconscious mind can help with complex decisions
  • In Brief: Kegels hold up as urinary continence treatment
  • By the way, doctor: What is the least healthy fat to bake with?
  • By the way, doctor: Do mold spores cause lung cancer?
  • Recognizing and treating basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: The skin cancer you haven’t heard about
  • Snapshots from the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study

More Harvard Health News »


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Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.