Sebaceous gland carcinoma | Cancer Research UK
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Sebaceous gland carcinoma


What sebaceous gland carcinoma is

Sebaceous gland cancinoma 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. It is most common in the eye area. 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 is 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 is 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 is 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 is important for the surgeon to take away every bit of the cancer, and it is usual to remove a border of healthy tissue from around the tumour. This reduces the risk of the cancer coming back. It may not be possible for the surgeon to tell the extent of the cancer before surgery. Sometimes these cancers have several centres and more tissue may have to be removed than expected.  You may wish 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 will 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.

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Updated: 16 September 2014