Updated on November 8, 2021. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Many people have a higher risk factor for developing skin cancer because of a record of sunburns, fair skin, moles, living in sunny climates, family history, exposure to radiation and more. Basal cell cancer is a common form of skin cancer. Many cancer scientists, or oncologists, have started conducting studies on cannabinoids, including their effectiveness of medical marijuana for basal cell carcinoma (BCC).
What Is Basal Cell Cancer?
BCCs are uncontrolled, abnormal lesions or growths that appear in your skin's basal cells. They line your epidermis' deepest layer.
BCCs typically look like:
• Red patches
• Open sores
• Shiny bumps
• Pink growths
Combined intense and cumulative, occasional skin exposure causes these skin abnormalities.
If treated in their early stages, BCCs rarely spread beyond where they started. However, there have been rare cases of BCCs spreading to other body parts and becoming life-threatening. If you don't get it treated promptly, it can be disfiguring.
BCCs are the most frequently occurring type of all cancers. Each year in the United States, there are more than 4 million diagnoses of basal cell cancer. One in three new cancers is cancer of the skin, and many of these cases are BCCs.
Types of Basal Cell Cancer
BCC has clinicopathologic types, each have their own biologic behavior and include:
• Infiltrative — The tumor penetrates the dermis in thin strands between collagen fibers, which makes the margins of the tumor clinically apparent.
• Nodular — Pigmented, cystic and keratotic, nodular basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of BCC. It typically presents as a pearly, round, flesh-colored papule with telangiectases — also known as “spider veins.”
• Morpheaform — Looks like a yellow or white, waxy, sclerotic plaque that hardly ever ulcerates. It's slightly depressed, firm and fibrotic or flat.
• Micronodular — This form doesn’t ulcerate. It can look white-yellow when stretched, feels firm and has a distinct border to it.
• Superficial — Typically seen on the shoulders or upper trunk, superficial basal cell carcinoma looks like an erythematous plaque or patch that's well-circumscribed and a shade of white.
History of Basal Cell Cancer
According to a Roman scholar, Aulus Cornelius Celsus (30 BCE-CE 50), basal cell cancer usually appears in the region of your face, upper parts of your body or on your nose, lips or ears. There is also an irregular swelling that sometimes includes numbness. It has dilated tortuous veins around it.
Hippocrates’ Book of Aphorisms (46 BCE) states ulcers that last a year or more cause the bone underneath to be eaten away, leading to depressed scars.
Physicians, scientists and others called BCCs by many names. For many years, a common term for it was Jacob’s ulcer — named after Irish ophthalmologist Arthur Jacob. Other names for BCC included:
• Ulcus exedens
• Chancroid ulcer
• Rodent ulcer
• Benign skin cancer
• Noli me tangere — literally, “don't touch me”
• Basal cell epithelioma
There were many attempted treatments for basal cell cancers throughout history. Historians have gathered records providing evidence of the disease from 2500 BCE or older.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus — an ancient Egyptian medical text named after the man who purchased it in 1862 —provides us with the oldest known medical case studies on surgical treatments. The text, which dates to approximately 1600 BCE, provides evidence that Egyptian physicians were using cauterization to treat skin diseases.
The great Roman scholar Celsus (30 BCE-CE 50), who wrote De Re Medicina, said a few intriguing things regarding skin cancer, stating that the cancer is removable only in its first stages. Treatment during later carcinoma stages would irritate cancer. As to treatment modes, some used cauterization, some used caustic medication and some preferred excision using a scalpel.
The book Secret Remedies, published by the British Medical Association in 1909, listed both an analysis of BCC, as well as ingredients for contemporary cures. Zinc chloride was among the revelations and dubbed a “wonderful cure” in treating cancerous tumors.
Effects of Basal Cell Cancer
BCC creates many effects in patients, both physical and mental.
Physical Effects of BCC
The physical effects of basal cell carcinoma can be readily apparent, and include:
• A pink growth — This type of BCC growth is a crusted center indentation with a marginally elevated border. Small blood vessels may start developing on the surface as the growth enlarges slowly.
• Open sores — A non-healing, persistent sore is a common early sign of BCC. This is typically an open sore that oozes, crusts or bleeds and stays open for several weeks, heals, then begins bleeding again.
• A shiny bump or nodule — A nodule or shiny bump often looks like a normal mole, but can be clear or pearly and is usually red, white or pink. The bump may also appear black, tan or brown, particularly in people with dark hair.
• A scar-like area — This area is yellow, white or waxy with poorly defined borders most of the time. You may have taut and shiny skin.
• An irritated area or reddish patch — These types of blemishes typically occur on your chest, face, legs, arms or shoulders. The patch may crust, hurt or itch. Sometimes there’s no discomfort.
Mental Effects of BCC
Just about every cancer survivor will face emotional and psychological issues that may pop up even years after treatment. Some common psychosocial issues you may deal with include:
• Fear of recurrence — It's not uncommon for you to fear your cancer will come back. These feelings can creep up during milestone events in your cancer journey. When you know your body, you can tell the difference between normal physical changes and severe symptoms you need to report to your doctor.
• Beliefs of a negative body image — If you've experienced a significant change in your physical function, like a disfigurement, you may suffer from self-esteem issues. Having a negative body image may affect your social interaction or desire for intimacy. Open and honest communication with people you love can reduce these negative feelings.
• Grief — Grief is a natural feeling that comes with loss. This loss can be anything from your sex drive to health, physical independence and fertility. Counseling and support groups can help you deal with grief.
• Spirituality — You may experience a renewed meaning to your life after your cancer, and will want to commit to an organized religion or spiritual practices. Spirituality may help improve the quality of life through adaptive coping, a strong social support network, better physiological function and lessened depression.
• Depression — Estimates show that 70 percent of people who survive their cancer experience depression at one point or another.
• Workplace changes — In the workplace, you may feel like you don't relate to your co-workers any longer, since they haven't experienced cancer themselves. You might not want to talk with coworkers or employers about your cancer treatment, because you think they may treat you differently.
• Relationship changes — After you receive a cancer diagnosis, you may notice coworkers, family members and friends treat you differently. They might not want to discuss your cancer, or they might avoid you. It may be helpful if you look for new relationships with other people who are dealing with cancer and understand what you’re going through.
Basal Cell Cancer Statistics
According to cancer.net, here are some statistics on the prevalence of basal cell cancer.
• In the U.S., more than 3 million individuals are diagnosed each year with non-melanoma skin cancer.
• Basal cell carcinoma makes up 80 percent of this non-melanoma skin cancer.
• Each year, around 2,000 individuals die from BCC.
The incidence rate of basal cell cancer, according to American Academy of Dermatology, is:
• One in five people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer in their life, according to current estimates.
• Nearly 9,500 Americans are diagnosed every day with skin cancer.
• From 2007 to 2011, each year around 4.9 million American adults received treatment for skin cancer, costing around $8.1 billion annually.
Current Treatments Available for Basal Cell Cancer and Their Side Effects
Doctors strive to eliminate cancer and leave the smallest scar possible. Your doctor will consider the place and size of your cancer to decide on the best treatment. They'll also factor in how long you’ve had it, your overall health and the chance of scarring.
Below are some treatment options the doctor may recommend for your basal cell carcinoma:
Cutting the tumor out — After numbing the skin around your tumor and the tumor itself, your doctor uses a spoon-shaped device known as a curette to scrape the tumor. Then, the surgeon cuts the tumor out and takes a sample of the surrounding normal-appearing skin to send to the lab. If the biopsy results show cancer cells in the skin area surrounding your tumor, the surgeon removes more skin.
Scraping the tumor and killing cancer cells — The doctor scrapes the tumor away and uses electricity to kill cancerous cells. Your doctor may refer to this as “curettage and desiccation.” He first numbs your skin, then uses the curette tool to scrape the tumor off. Your doctor will kill any remaining cancer cells and control your bleeding using an electric needle.
Freezing your cancer cells — Cryosurgery is where the doctor freezes your cancer cells and kills them using liquid nitrogen.
Undergoing radiation therapy — Over the course of several weeks, your doctor destroys your cancer cells using X-rays.
Getting Mohs surgery — With this technique, your surgeon eliminates each layer of your tumor. He removes some tissue and inspects it under a microscope to determine if there are cancer cells in it before he starts on the next layer.
Using creams and pills — There are certain medications your doctor may recommend to treat your BCC. Two conventional creams your physician may recommend include:
• Fluorouracil (5-FU)
You can apply these topical medications to your skin for a few weeks, then return to your doctor to see if the treatment is working.
Your doctor may also prescribe you vismodegib (Erivedge) if your BCC has begun spreading to other body parts.
How and Why Marijuana Can Be an Effective Treatment for Basal Cell Cancer
At the moment, acceptable forms of treatment are cutting out the lesion if the doctor finds it in its early stage, or chemotherapy if the cancer is spreading. However, there's a safer, better, natural and non-invasive approach to treating cancer. Although there isn't a lot of medical evidence on this treatment, many people have shared their stories about how cannabis and basal cell cancer treatment was vital for their cancer.
Medical cannabis for basal cell cancer can improve a patient's prognosis and restore their quality of life. In fact, a Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health study showed that over a span of 20 weeks, cannabinoids were able to reduce skin cancer effectively as much as 90 percent.
Researchers studied mice with skin cancer over a 20-week course and found that when the mice received cannabinoids, their skin cancer dramatically reduced and inhibited tumor growth.
What Symptoms of Basal Cell Cancer Can Medical Marijuana Treat?
The American Cancer Society reports marijuana can help with some symptoms of cancer and its treatment side effects.
• Nausea and vomiting — Multiple small studies of smoked weed found it's helpful in reducing nausea and vomiting symptoms from chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Further studies of individuals who are participating in clinical trials and taking cannabis extracts have shown these patients don’t need as much pain medicine.
• Neuropathic pain — Several studies revealed that inhaled pot could help treat pain caused by damaged nerves.
• Appetite — Inhaled cannabis for basal cell cancer also helped increase the appetite.
• Slow the growth or kill cancer cells — Scientists reported in more recent studies that cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, slow down the growth of cancer cells or kill them altogether. Animal studies suggest that some cannabinoids, in particular, may reduce the spreading of some types of cancer and slow growth.
Best Strains of Marijuana to Use for Basal Cell Cancer
You can learn about marijuana strains for BCC below.
• Northern Lights (Indica) — Provides relief from nausea in patients with cancer who recently received radiation treatments or chemotherapy.
• ACDC (hybrid) — Offers pain relief from the painful and other negative effects in patients receiving systemic treatments.
• Chocolope (Sativa) — This sativa cannabis strain is uplifting and energizing. It gets rid of fatigue that many worn-out and tired cancer patients experience.
• Charlotte's Web (Sativa) — With its high CBD content, this strain offers relief for various cancer symptoms without psychoactive effects.
• Granddaddy Purple (Indica) — For cancer patients who suffer appetite loss due to cancer treatment, this strain helps bring back their appetite.
Best Methods of Marijuana Treatment to Use to Treat Basal Cell Cancer Symptoms
In addition to cannabis oil applied topically, patients with BCC can benefit from transdermal patches. These are an excellent way to deliver a steady cannabis dose to your skin and a controlled release of cannabinoids to continue acting on cancer.
When you take THC orally, like in baked goods, it can take hours for your body to absorb. Once it absorbs the THC, your liver processes it, and this creates another psychoactive compound that acts on your brain and changes consciousness or mood differently from THC.
When you vaporize or smoke medical weed, THC enters your bloodstream and quickly goes to your brain. Only small amounts of that second psychoactive compound are produced, and therefore have less effect. However, when inhaling cannabis, the effects don't last as long as taking it orally.
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