Basal Cell Carcinoma | Symptoms & Stages | MedStar Health
A dermatologist looks at the skin of a young patient during an office visit.

Expert skin cancer care, close to home

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer in the United States. These abnormal growths develop in the outermost layer of skin that is frequently exposed to the sun, like the head and neck. For many, it looks like a pimple or red sore that doesn't go away. Although some skin cancers can be life-threatening, like melanoma, basal cell carcinomas are typically easily treatable. However, any cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and concerning, and we work quickly to get you the care and reassurance you need.

At MedStar Health, our skin cancer experts have decades of combined experience in diagnosing and treating these kinds of cancers. Here, your care involves several specialists with training and expertise in different areas. Together, we will design a personalized treatment plan that will lead to your best outcomes, maximizing both your oncologic and cosmetic results. This is important because many of these cancers develop on the cheeks, ears, scalp, and nose⁠—places that are visible. Your team may include some of our world-renowned plastic and reconstructive surgeons who work closely with our oncologic surgeons to minimize any scarring and maintain your natural appearance.

Types of Skin Cancer

play button

The epidermis is the outer layer of the skin and contains basal and squamous cells. Cancer occurs when there is an uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells in a layer of the skin.

Symptoms and risk factors

Keep an eye out for these warning signs.

Like other skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma symptoms can involve any new or unusual skin growths. Each type of skin cancer looks different, and the appearance of basal cell cancer varies person-to-person. You should talk to your doctor if you notice:

  • A red or scaly patch of skin that may or may not be itchy or painful
  • A small, pimple-like growth that is pearly, pink, red, white, black, or brown
  • An open sore that persists
  • A mark that looks like a scar, or waxy growth
  • A dome shape with blood vessels visible in the center

If you see something on your skin that you think is concerning, it's always best to get it checked sooner rather than later. That's because skin cancer is often easily treated when found in early stages.

Excessive sun exposure significantly increases your risk of this disease.

The most common reason people develop skin cancer is excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays. UV rays are produced by the sun, and those with fair skin who have a history of severe or blistering sunburns as a child have the highest risk. In addition, tanning beds give off harmful UV radiation, and anyone who uses or has used them is at risk for this and other skin cancers. Other things that affect your risk include:

  • Getting older, as the body loses its ability to repair sun damage
  • Personal history of skin cancer
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Exposure to certain environmental elements, like radiation and arsenic

Screening and prevention

Know your skin.

There aren't general guidelines for basal cell skin cancer screening. However, it's always best to regularly examine your body and know what's normal for you. If you notice something abnormal or suspicious, always get it checked by a doctor to rule out this cancer or something more serious, like melanoma.

Protect your skin in the sun.

You can take several precautions to minimize your odds of developing basal cell carcinoma. The best way to prevent skin cancer is to:

  • Lather your skin with broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF anytime you're outdoors (even if it says waterproof)
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating
  • Seek shade when possible, especially when outside in the middle of the day
  • Avoid tanning beds
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses



If you have a concerning area of skin, your doctor will perform a skin exam and biopsy.

A dermatologist is a doctor with special training in caring for skin-related diseases. To diagnose this cancer, your dermatologist will ask you about your personal and family medical history, history of sun exposure, and symptoms. Then, they'll thoroughly check your skin for any unusual growths, marks, or areas. If something needs further evaluation, they may take a biopsy, or a small tissue sample. This is done in the office, using a small needle to numb the area. A pathologist then looks at the biopsy under a microscope to determine if it's cancerous. If it is, a pathologist will determine its risk for coming back, and this information may influence your treatment options.

Types of cancer

There are several different subtypes.

Basal cell carcinoma can have different characteristics and is classified as one of the following:

  • Nodular basal cell carcinoma: This type often looks like a shiny, round bump, similar to a pimple.

  • Superficial basal cell carcinoma: This can look like a scaly skin patch, similar to psoriasis or eczema, with a defined border. It slowly expands over time and may bleed easily.

  • Pigmented basal cell carcinoma: This most closely resembles melanoma and is the most rare subtype, often affecting people with darker skin.

  • Invasive or sclerosing basal cell carcinoma: This type can be more complex than the others, looking similar to scar tissue.

Dr Michael Atkins confers with a colleague at the Lombardi Cancer Institute at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Looking for expert cancer care?

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high quality care, second opinions and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

Our locations

Distance from Change locationEnter your location

MedStar Health: Dermatology at Chevy Chase

5530 Wisconsin Ave
The Chevy Chase Bldg.
Ste. 730
Chevy Chase, MD 20815

MedStar Health: Dermatology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center

110 Irving St. NW
Suite 1A50A
Washington, D.C., 20010

MedStar Health: Dermatology at Lafayette Centre

1133 21st St. NW
Building 2
5th Floor
Washington, D.C., 20036

MedStar Health: Dermatology in Washington D.C.

106 Irving St. NW
Physician's Office Bldg. South
Ste. 410
Washington, D.C., 20010