Can Basal Cell Carcinomas and Squamous Cell Carcinomas Spread?

While I was moderating the SkinCancer.net Facebook page recently, I noticed a question from one of our community members: "can basal cell carcinoma spread?" The question made me realize that other people might have the same question as well, which led to this article. The short answer is yes, basal cell carcinoma can spread. In fact, both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of skin cancer, can spread. But it’s worth taking a deeper dive into this.

Can basal cell carcinoma spread?

Basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, develops most commonly after frequent sun exposure or tanning bed use. Basal cell carcinoma is a slow-growing cancer, but early treatment is important because, if left untreated, basal cell carcinoma can spread and grow deep into the skin. My surgeon told me many years ago that, what appears to be a small area of basal cell carcinoma on the surface of the skin, can actually be as large as a silver dollar in other layers of the skin.

Where does basal cell carcinoma spread?

It's important to know that basal cell carcinoma can spread to other surrounding tissue and can grow around nerves. I had two separate basal cells that grew around nerves: one in my forehead and one in my upper lip. Both of those surgeries required moving the nerve to remove the cancer, and I was left with permanent numbness in both areas because of that.

There is some good news

There is some good news! According to the American Cancer Society, basal cell carcinomas rarely metastasize to lymph nodes, organs, or other areas of the body. This doesn't mean, however, that they should be left untreated. Basal cell carcinoma can spread and do a lot of damage in the area where they form and can become quite disfiguring if they are left to grow.

Let's talk about squamous cell carcinoma

The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is also frequently caused by sun exposure or tanning bed use. Like basal cells, squamous cells can grow deep into the skin. However, unlike basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

Squamous cell carcinoma stages

According to the Moffitt Cancer Center, squamous cell carcinoma is classified into stages from 0-4 according to how far it has spread throughout the body. Stage 0 means it hasn’t spread beyond the top layer of skin. Stage 1 squamous cell has spread deeper into the skin but has not spread into healthy tissue or lymph nodes. Stage 2 squamous cells have grown deeper into the skin and have spread to additional skin layers or nerves. Stage 3 means that the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, and Stage 4 squamous cell has spread to at least one organ, such as a separate area of the skin, the lungs, or the brain.

These cancers can be treated

Fortunately, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are usually very responsive to treatment and have a survival rate of more than 95% with early detection and treatment. The American Cancer Society reports that deaths from basal cells and squamous cells are uncommon, with an estimation of 2,000 deaths in the United States a year, but don’t become one of the statistics. See a dermatologist regularly for a skin check, and in-between visits, perform self-checks and keep a close eye on your skin for anything suspicious or worrisome. If you do see something, call your doctor for an appointment because the sooner you can get diagnosis and treatment, the better.

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