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Sebaceous gland carcinoma

Find out what sebaceous gland carcinoma is, what causes it and how it's treated.

What sebaceous gland carcinoma is

Sebaceous gland carcinoma is a very rare type of skin cancer. The sebaceous glands are the glands that produce our natural skin oils. Sebaceous glands are found all over our bodies so this type of cancer can be diagnosed just about anywhere. Generally they appear as a firm, painless lump and can be yellowish in colour.

The most common site is the upper eyelid and 3 out of 4 of these cancers are diagnosed around the eye. The remainder can be elsewhere on the head or neck, on the trunk, or in the genital area. It's more common in elderly people, but sebaceous gland cancer is sometimes found in younger people who have previously had radiotherapy to the face.

Risks and causes of sebaceous gland carcinoma

Like most cancers, the cause is far from fully understood.

But these cancers can be associated with:

  • non cancerous lumps (benign adenomas) of the sebaceous glands
  • exposure to radiation – previous radiotherapy or (less likely) repeated X-rays
  • a genetic condition called Muir Torré syndrome

Muir Torré syndrome can mean that there's another primary cancer elsewhere in the body. So people diagnosed with sebaceous gland cancer are often checked over for signs of cancer elsewhere. This can be frightening, but it's usually just a precaution.

Treatment for sebaceous gland carcinoma

These cancers are often slow growing. They only spread to another part of the body in 1 out of every 5 cases. Treatment is surgery. As this is a rare cancer, treatment should be carried out at a specialist skin cancer centre by a team including a skin specialist (dermatologist), a plastic surgeon and a cancer specialist (clinical oncologist).

It's important for the surgeon to take away every bit of the cancer, and it's usual to remove a border of healthy tissue from around the tumour. This reduces the risk of the cancer coming back.

It might not be possible for the surgeon to tell the extent of the cancer before surgery. Sometimes these cancers have several centres and more tissue might have to be removed than expected. You might want to talk this over with your surgeon before your operation. 

Radiotherapy is sometimes used instead of surgery, or as an extra treatment after the operation. After treatment, you'll need to see your specialist regularly for a few years. The specialist will examine you for signs of the cancer coming back, either in the skin or the lymph nodes.

Last reviewed: 
16 Sep 2014
  • Cancer and principles and practices of oncology (10th edition), VT Devita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015.

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