Basal cell carcinoma is the most common of all cancers, but it accounts for less than 0.1% of all cancer deaths. Basal cell tumors grow on sun-exposed skin, so they are easy to recognize in time for treatment. They are slow-growing, and they are easily treated by a physician.
In about 1 in 200 cases, a basal cell carcinoma spreads to some other part of the body, but even untreated basal cells carcinomas usually only do damage to immediately adjacent skin and tissues. However, if the tumor is never treated, it can eventually grow to more than an inch (25 mm) in diameter. A basal cell carcinoma that has gone untreated for decades can become itchy, irritated, and unsightly.
A basal cell carcinoma originates in the basal layers of the skin that regenerates the skin's surface. The kinds of DNA changes that result in basal cell carcinoma are different from those that cause actinic keratoses which become squamous cell carcinoma.
DNA changes that lead to basal carcinoma are primarily caused by the UV-B rays of the sun. These are easier to block than the UV-A rays that can causes changes that lead to squamous cell carcinoma (although medical researchers have reservations about "guaranteed" results from sun protection, please see below). Usually, a basal cell carcinoma is preceded by a sunburn, but it may take as long as 25 to 50 years to appear. Childhood sunburns cause basal cell carcinoma in midlife and later.
Preventing Sunburn Prevents Basal Cell Carcinoma
It is not a revelation to most visitors of this site that preventing sunburn prevents most forms of skin cancer. However, most of us don't know which sunblock ingredients to look for when choosing sun protection. And the benefits of sun protection for basal cell carcinoma aren't exactly what one might expect.
The most effective sunscreen ingredients are also among the cheapest. Mineral sunblocks made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide block both UV-A and UV-B rays. They are cheap. They are effective. And if you have ever seen a lifeguard with a white nose, you know their cosmetic side effect.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide leave white cast on the skin. If you have fair skin, it may not be noticeable, but if you have brown, gold, or black skin tones, you may temporarily have purple or gray skin. Nonetheless, these easy to use, inexpensive sun blocks are effective for preventing skin cancers.
Whether an expert would say the same thing about other kinds of sunscreen for preventing skin cancer seems to depend on whether or not their studies are funded by the makers of skin care products. There is no doubt that sunscreen prevents sunburn, but the evidence is mixed for whether any other kinds of sun screen prevents basal cell carcinoma.
You still need protection to prevent actinic keratosis and squamous cells carcinoma, however, so it is probably a good idea to use products that contain the skin-safe ingredients avobenzone (which is sometimes identified by its chemical name butyl dimethylbenzoylmethane or its trade name Parsol 1789), Tinosorb (also known as bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine), or Mexoryl SX (terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid) if you don't want your nose to look like a lifeguard's.
There are some new, expensive treatments for sun damaged skin that don't work. One is tretinoin, the acne drug that is also known as Retin-A. It's possible to get tretinoin skin creams over the counter now.
The US Veterans Administration ran a 5-year clinical trial of tretinoin as a preventative for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Of the vets who got the treatment, 53% developed one of these skin cancers anyway. Of the vets who did not, 54% developed a skin cancer. Save your money and leave tretinoin topical for acne treatment, for which it is actually effective.
So Which Treatments Really Work?
If most sunscreens don't actually protect against basal cell carcinoma (but because they protect against more aggressive forms of skin cancer you should use them anyway), what might prevent the progression of this specific form of skin cancer? Professors Farrukh Afaq and Santosh K. Katiyar of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the USA have some suggestions.
A nutraceutical food that seems to protect the skin against the progression of sun damage to skin cancer is pomegranate fruit extract. The evidence for pomegranate fruit extract is still preliminary. It's only been found to stop the progression of sun damage to skin cancer in laboratory animals. But as a nutritional supplement taken by mouth, Afaq and Katiyar believe, it may slow down the appearance of basal cell tumors on skin that has already been damaged by the sun.
The skin care ingredient that the professors believe may be helpful if applied directly to the skin is silymarin, which is a group of antioxidants found in the herb milk thistle. A component of silymarin known as silibinin activates a process called apoptosis, or cellular suicide, in basal cell carcinoma in mice. It activates a gene called p53, which tells the cell not to reproduce and to finish its life cycle.
When creams containing silymarin are applied to directly to the skin, they also activate the immune system--at least in mice. Pomegranate would be taken by mouth, and silymarin creams would have to be applied to the skin. There is even less evidence for what many nutritionally oriented physicians would consider a "commonsense" protocol of nutritional supplementation for preventing the progression of sun damage to basal cell carcinoma. The key nutrients for preventing basal cell carcinoma are antioxidants.
A typical daily supplementation program to support skin health for a prolonged period with no new basal cell skin cancers would include:
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): 400 milligrams per day during the summer.
- Selenium: 200 micrograms per day.
- Vitamin C: 1,000 mg per day.
- Vitamin E: 400 IU per day. Also, if you exercise in the sun during the summer,
- R-lipoic acid with biotin, 100 mg per day.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), vitamin C, and vitamin E work together to protect p53, the gene that ensures that cells repair defects in their DNA before multiplying. And on an anecdotal basis, I've seen a few people whose basal cell carcinomas seem to disappear after they are treated with sea buckthorn oil. I'm not entirely sure that these cases among my friends weren't a fluke.
Honestly, I can't tell you that any of these measures absolutely will prevent basal cell carcinoma. What I can tell you is that they won't do harm, and they may help. All of these approaches are useful for supporting other dimensions of good health. You'll still need to see your dermatologist at least every couple of years to make sure you get timely treatment.
What About Eggplant for Skin Cancer?
In 2008, the blogs were buzzing with articles based on a book by Dr. Bill Cham about treating skin cancers with a facial made from eggplant and vinegar. The hydroxycinnamate caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid in eggplant help the skin restore its natural, healthy cholesterol and ceramides, the theory goes, so that in just a few days, melanoma and other cancers would just fade away.
What the bloggers left out, of course, is that the chemicals are more concentrated in the parts of the plant we don't actually eat. My initial reaction to this was "Are they nuts?" And four years after the fact, I haven't seen any evidence that this was anything other than a potentially life-threatening fad. Melanoma can kill you. Don't dab eggplant on your face. See a doctor. If you see a dermatologist for diagnosis as soon as you detect changes in your skin, simple treatment can literally save your skin. Use any natural treatments for basal cell carcinoma for prevention only.
But Isn't Eggplant the Main Ingredient in Curaderm?
No, it's not. Curaderm is an extract made from an Australian plant that is in the same family as eggplants called devil's apple. Chopping up eggplants you grow in your garden or buy at the market won't give you Curaderm.
There are four articles in the medical literature about Curaderm. It gets glowing reviews from users all over the world. Just about the only time it doesn't get results, if you read customer reviews, is when users don't follow the instructions. It has to be shaken and stored in the freezer for an hour before first application, and then put in the refrigerator.
I'm not one to argue with what thousands of people say works, but I wouldn't put it on a melanoma. Melanoma is potentially deadly and using the treatment instead of seeing the doctor can make your treatment too late. But if I had a number of basal cell carcinomas and I didn't have an appointment with my dermatologist for a month or so, I'd certainly give it a try, especially if the product was offered with a money-back guarantee. If you don't know what kind of skin cancer you have, however, for heaven's sake find out first. A doctor has to do the diagnosis.
Where Natural Medicine for Basal Cell Carcinoma Can Go Horribly Wrong
I'm not as sanguine about a natural remedy known as Sanguinaria, or bloodroot. This is product I have seen go horribly wrong. Bloodroot is caustic (it's known as an escharotic remedy in traditional medicine) and can do permanent damage to the skin. I sent a cousin a copy of one of my books, and she had one of her friends call me about his experiments with bloodroot.
Giving me essentially no chance to get a word in edgewise, he said he had found a skin care remedy I didn't know about called bloodroot. He lived in north Georgia, where a natural products vendor, who was later arrested on assault charges, had been peddling a salve. He said that the salve would dissolve his cancer "what better than you knowed in your book." I finally interrupted him to tell him just not to do it.
I got another call a year later. The salve had indeed dissolved his melanoma, leaving a permanent hole in his back that was covered over by a scar. However, small amounts of the cancer had escaped and spread throughout his body. He wanted to know why I hadn't warned him, although I had. And I'll warn you, too. Don't use bloodroot for skin cancer. Don't use bloodroot at all. But the other remedies listed here won't hurt, and Curaderm might even help--as long as using it doesn't cause to put off any doctor's appointments.
Photo credits: John Hendrix, MD DBKing