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Sebaceous gland carcinoma

Sebaceous gland carcinoma is a very rare type of skin cancer. It starts in the sebaceous glands. These are the glands that produce our natural skin oils.

There are sebaceous glands all over our bodies. So this type of cancer can be diagnosed anywhere in the body. But the most common site is the upper eyelid.

Sebaceous gland carcinoma is very rare. Just over 700 people were diagnosed with it in England between 1999 and 2008.

Risks and causes of sebaceous gland carcinoma

There are some factors that increase your risk of developing sebaceous gland carcinoma. But having a risk factor doesn’t mean that you will develop this cancer.

Some factors that can increase your risk include:

  • non cancerous lumps (benign adenomas) of the sebaceous glands
  • exposure to radiation – for example, previous treatment with radiotherapy
  • a genetic condition called Muir Torré syndrome

Muir Torré syndrome can mean that you have another primary cancer elsewhere in your body. So people diagnosed with sebaceous gland cancer often have tests to check for signs of cancer elsewhere. This can be frightening, but it's usually just a precaution.

This type of skin cancer is more common in women than men.  It's more common in elderly people.

Symptoms

Sebaceous gland carcinoma usually appears as a firm, painless lump. It can be a yellowish colour.

The most common site is the upper eyelid. 75 out of 100 (75%) of these cancers are diagnosed around the eye. You can also have sebaceous gland carcinoma elsewhere on your body including:

  • the head or neck
  • the central part of your body (trunk)
  • the genital area.

Unfortunately, it can spread to other parts of the body such as the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, or bones.

Treatment for sebaceous gland carcinoma

You usually have treatment at a specialist skin cancer centre because this is a rare type of skin cancer. A team of doctors discuss the best treatment and care for you. They are called a multidisciplinary team (MDT). The MDT includes a skin specialist (dermatologist), a plastic surgeon and a cancer radiotherapy specialist (clinical oncologist).

The treatment you have depends on:

  • where the cancer started and its size
  • whether it has spread
  • your general health

Your doctor will discuss your treatment, its benefits and the possible side effects. The main treatments for sebaceous gland carcinoma are:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy

Surgery

Surgery is the main treatment. Your surgeon aims to remove all the cancer cells and some healthy tissue around it (a healthy margin).

The surgeon might not know the extent of your cancer before surgery. Sometimes these cancers have several centres. So the surgeon might need to remove more tissue than expected. Your surgeon will talk about this with you before your operation. 

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. You might have it:

  • after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind - this is called adjuvant treatment
  • as your only treatment if you can’t have surgery for any reason

You usually have it once a day, Monday to Friday, for over 5 weeks. 

Coping

Coping with a diagnosis of cancer can be difficult. You might feel sad and worry about what will happen. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens afterwards.

Talking to other people

Talking to people who have the same condition can help.

Our discussion forum Cancer Chat is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

The Rare Cancer Alliance offer support and information to people affected by rare cancers.

Last reviewed: 
26 Nov 2020
Next review due: 
24 Nov 2023
  • Cancer and principles and practices of oncology (10th edition)
     VT Devita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015.

  • Sebaceous carcinoma: evidence-based clinical practice guidelines
    J Owen and others
    Lancet Oncol 2019 volume 20 pages 699–714