Lesser Known Skin Cancers: Sebaceous Carcinoma

Sebaceous carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the sebaceous glands, small glands that are connected to the hair follicles in the skin. Sebaceous carcinomas are rare, but they are considered an aggressive cancer because they tend to spread, or metastasize, to other areas of the body.1,2

Sebaceous glands are found throughout the body, as they produce the oily substance that lubricates hair and skin. The glands are most prevalent on the scalp and face, and most sebaceous carcinomas develop in and around the eyes, where the greatest number of glands are found. The sebaceous glands of the eyes are called Meibomian glands, and sebaceous carcinomas that occur in the eyelid may also be called Meibomian carcinomas.1,2

What are the symptoms of a sebaceous carcinoma?

Most sebaceous carcinomas begin on the eyelid and appear as a painless, round tumor on the upper or lower eyelid. A sebaceous carcinoma may cause any of the following symptoms:

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  • Yellowish lump that feels firm and deep
  • Eyelid thickening, especially along the lash line
  • Yellowish or reddish crust on the eyelid along the lash line
  • A growth similar to a pimple
  • A growth that bleeds
  • A sore that doesn’t heal or reappears1

There are other types of growths that can occur on the eyelid that are benign (not cancerous), including a stye or pink eye (conjunctivitis). Any unusual growth on the eyelid should be investigated by a dermatologist. Because sebaceous carcinoma is aggressive and has the ability to metastasize, early diagnosis and treatment is important.1

While sebaceous carcinomas usually occur on or around the eyes, they can occur on other parts of the body, and may appear as a growth or spot that bleeds, grows, or changes in any way. Any suspicious spot should be looked at by a dermatologist.1

Are there risk factors for sebaceous carcinoma?

There are several characteristics that may increase a person’s risk of developing sebaceous carcinoma, such as:

  • Being female
  • Being elderly (in their seventh decade of life)
  • Having a weakened immune system, from a medication or a condition like HIV
  • Past radiation treatment to the head or neck
  • Being of Asian heritage
  • Having Muir-Torre syndrome1,3

How is sebaceous carcinoma diagnosed?

Sebaceous carcinomas are generally diagnosed through a skin biopsy, in which a sample or the whole growth is removed for examination under a microscope.1

How is sebaceous carcinoma treated?

Sebaceous carcinomas are treated with surgery, generally either an excision or Mohs surgery. With either type of surgery, the goal is to remove all the cancerous cells and get “clean margins,” a layer of healthy cells around the cancer cells.1

Additional tests may be performed to determine if the cancer has spread. These tests may include biopsies of the lymph nodes, blood tests, or x-rays. A colonoscopy may also be performed to check for metastases (distant growths of the cancer) in the colon.1

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