Sebaceous carcinoma is a rare type of skin cancer that starts in your skin’s oil-producing (sebaceous) glands. It’s an aggressive cancer that can return after treatment. A pimple-like bump on your upper eyelid is a common symptom, but tumors can form anywhere. Dermatologists often perform Mohs surgery to treat this cancer.
Sebaceous (pronounced “suh-BAY-shus”) carcinoma is a rare skin cancer that develops in your skin’s oil-producing glands. “Sebaceous” means oil-producing.
The cancer most commonly affects your eyelids, but can develop almost anywhere on your body. That’s because you have sebaceous glands underneath most of your skin, especially where there’s hair. These glands secrete an oily substance called sebum that protects your body from germs.
“Carcinoma” is the medical term for cancer. Healthcare providers may also refer to sebaceous carcinoma as sebaceous gland carcinoma or sebaceous gland adenocarcinoma or meibomian (pronounced “my-BOW-me-en”) gland carcinoma. The meibomian gland is a specific sebaceous gland that only exists in your eyelids.
Sebaceous carcinoma is a rare cancer. About 5% to 10% of skin cancers are eyelid tumors. Only around 1% of these cancers are sebaceous carcinoma.
Sebaceous carcinoma mainly affects women and people assigned female at birth and people ages 60 to 80. However, younger and older adults and children can also get this skin cancer.
Experts don’t know why some people develop sebaceous carcinoma. Like other types of skin cancer, exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays may contribute to this cancer. It may also develop in people, especially younger people, who have had radiation therapy to the head or neck.
People with a rare inherited disease called Muir-Torre syndrome are more likely to develop sebaceous carcinoma, as well as colorectal (colon) cancer. Muir-Torre syndrome is a form of Lynch syndrome. It causes tumors to form in your sebaceous glands.
Some studies suggest that people of Asian descent are also more at risk.
In addition to age and sun exposure, other risk factors for sebaceous cancer include:
Sebaceous carcinoma tumors tend to affect your upper eyelids, which have many sebaceous glands. Tumors can also affect your lower eyelids. You may need to pull gently on your eyelid to see the lump.
On your eyelid, you may notice:
Untreated sebaceous carcinoma can cause:
Sebaceous carcinoma is rare. Still, you should see a healthcare provider if you develop an eyelid growth. Try not to panic. One of these noncancerous (benign) skin conditions is more likely the cause:
Sebaceous carcinoma tumors can also appear on your head, ears or neck. Less commonly, tumors form on your back, chest, abdomen, genitals or buttocks.
You should contact a healthcare provider if you notice:
Sebaceous carcinoma is most likely to affect the lymph nodes. These small glands cleanse and remove damaged cells in your lymphatic system.
If the tumor affects your eyelids, you may also see an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) who can perform a biopsy.
If a skin biopsy indicates you have sebaceous carcinoma, you may see a team of doctors for diagnosis and treatment. Your provider will take your history and do a physical exam to look for evidence of cancer spread to your lymph nodes or other organs. An ophthalmologist will examine your eye to see if the tumor has extended onto your eye.
Surgical options include:
Depending on the extent of the procedure, you may have reconstructive surgery. This procedure can minimize scarring and improve your eyelid function and facial symmetry. Your dermatologist or an oculoplastic surgeon may perform this step at the end of the tumor removal, if needed.
Treatments for metastatic sebaceous carcinoma vary, depending on where the cancer spreads. You may have surgery to remove affected lymph nodes. You may also have radiation therapy or other cancer treatments.
With treatment, more than 90% of those affected survive the disease. The outlook is better for those who receive treatment within six months.
Sebaceous carcinoma can be fatal if it spreads. Outcomes are worse when there’s a delay in diagnosis and treatment.
Sebaceous carcinoma may be aggressive. For as many as 1 in 4 people, the cancer comes back (recurs) or spreads (metastasizes) after treatment.
It’s important to receive follow-up care so your healthcare providers can watch for signs of the cancer’s return and treat it right away.
You may be able to improve your outlook by:
Sebaceous hyperplasia is a noncancerous (benign) growth in a hair follicle. You may have several of these soft moveable bumps. The bumps typically appear on your chin, cheeks, forehead, nose or upper trunk (chest, back and shoulders).
Sebaceous cysts are noncancerous growths that form underneath your skin when dead skin and oil clog a sebaceous gland. Sebaceous cysts move easily under your skin and typically affect your face, neck or torso. Cysts that get large or cause infections may require treatment.
You should call your healthcare provider if you notice:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You should contact your healthcare provider anytime you notice changes to your skin. In most instances, these changes are harmless. Still, while many noncancerous conditions cause growths on your eyelids or bumps on your skin, it’s best to see your provider for an exam. Sebaceous carcinoma may be rare, but it’s an aggressive disease that can quickly spread. A prompt diagnosis and treatment plan can significantly affect your prognosis.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/31/2022.
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