Sebaceous carcinoma is a rare and aggressive skin cancer. It typically begins on a person’s eyelid. If doctors find it early, they can often treat it successfully with surgery.

Sebaceous glands are microscopic glands in the skin that secrete sebum, a waxy substance that lubricates the skin and hair. Sebaceous carcinoma can develop in any sebaceous gland. People sometimes refer to the condition as sebaceous gland carcinoma.

Meibomian glands are sebaceous glands in the skin of the eyelid. Most sebaceous carcinomas start on the eyelid.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of sebaceous carcinomas. This article also examines causes, diagnosis, treatment options, and more.

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The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises that sebaceous carcinomas often develop on a person’s eyelid.

Symptoms on the eyelids

Sebaceous carcinomas on the eyelid can cause the following symptoms:

  • a painless yellowish lump that grows slowly and feels deep and firm
  • a growth on the eyelid that resembles a pimple
  • a sore or growth on the eyelid that bleeds, does not heal, or reappears
  • skin thickening on the eyelid near the lash line
  • reddish or yellow crusting on the eyelid

As the cancer develops, it may resemble pink eye.

A person may notice growths on the upper and lower eyelids that can secrete fluid. Often, the eyelashes fall out. As the cancer spreads, it may affect the person’s sight.

Symptoms in other areas

Sebaceous carcinoma much less commonly develops in other areas of the body.

If it does, it may look like a pink or yellowish lump that grows slowly and may bleed. Sebaceous carcinoma can develop in the following areas:

It is best for people to contact a doctor if they notice any new spots or moles or if an existing spot or mole changes, grows, or bleeds.

Learn about cancerous moles.

View the slideshow below for photos of sebaceous carcinoma.

Because sebaceous carcinoma is rare, the exact cause is still unclear.

According to estimates, there were only 800 cases annually in the United States in the years 2000–2016.

Risk factors

Possible risk factors include:

  • Muir-Torre syndrome: This is a rare medical condition that many people don’t know they have until they receive a diagnosis of sebaceous carcinoma. It can increase the risk of some cancers.
  • A compromised immune system: A person may have a weakened immune system if they have HIV or take medication after having an organ transplant or to treat certain conditions, such as arthritis.
  • Radiation treatments: Having radiation treatments to the head or neck in childhood may increase the risk of developing sebaceous carcinoma in later years.
  • Age: Experts note that sebaceous carcinoma is more frequent in older females. More than 98% of sebaceous carcinoma cases occur in people who are more than 40 years old. The rate peaks when individuals are in their 70s and 80s.
  • Asian heritage: Some research suggests the condition may be more common among people with Asian heritage. However, other studies have not supported these findings.

Sebaceous carcinoma may occur due to a viral infection. However, more research is necessary to confirm this.

Because sebaceous carcinoma usually develops on the head and neck, experts also believe sun exposure and damage to the skin in these areas may play a role in its development.

Doctors will consider sebaceous carcinoma when treating the following conditions:

  • resistant blepharoconjunctivitis, which occurs when eyelid inflammation leads to inflammation of the conjunctiva
  • a stye, which is a bump on the eyelid with a small amount of pus inside
  • a chalazion, which is a small, slow-growing lump or cyst within the eyelid

Doctors may need to do a biopsy of the affected skin area and a comprehensive physical exam of the eye.

If they suspect sebaceous carcinoma on the head or neck, they may use imaging techniques or a fine-needle aspiration biopsy of suspicious lymph nodes to help diagnose the condition.

A person’s doctor can advise on what tests they order and answer any questions the individual may have.

Doctors may treat sebaceous carcinoma with surgery or other methods.


Mohs surgery is a specialized technique for areas with little skin, such as the eyelids.

It allows doctors to remove the entire tumor but less tissue by taking small amounts and looking at it under a microscope. The process continues until the surgeon no longer sees cancer cells at the tissue’s edge, and the margins look clear.

One study found that 16 out of 18 people who had Mohs surgery for sebaceous carcinoma were cancer-free after an average follow-up of 37 months.

Other methods

Other treatments for sebaceous carcinoma can include cryotherapy, which involves removing areas of skin by freezing it.

Radiation therapy is not a first-line treatment for sebaceous carcinoma, but may be a suitable option if:

  • a person cannot have surgery or would prefer not to
  • the cancer has spread
  • some cancer remains after surgery

As the exact cause of sebaceous carcinoma is unclear, it may not be possible to completely prevent the condition.

However, the AAD advises that people who have received treatment for sebaceous carcinoma do the following:

  • protect their skin from sun exposure
  • perform skin self-exams after asking a doctor how to do them
  • keep all follow-up appointments with doctors and dermatologists
  • ask a doctor what else they may be able to do to improve their outlook

Sebaceous carcinoma is an aggressive cancer that can return after treatment. It has an 11–30% recurrence rate after surgical removal.

However, a person’s outlook is generally good when doctors find and treat the cancer early.

A 2023 article notes older research that found the 5-year survival rates were 75.2% for sebaceous carcinoma affecting the eye and 68% when it involves other areas of the body.

An article from 2020 notes other research that estimates the 5-year overall survival rate as 78% for localized disease and 50% for metastatic cancer. “Metastatic” describes cancer that has spread.

A note on survival rates

The survival rate for a particular condition refers to the proportion of people who are still alive for a length of time after receiving that diagnosis. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 50% means that 50% of people are still alive 5 years after diagnosis.

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates and are based on the results of previous studies or treatments. A person can consult a healthcare professional about how their condition is likely to affect them.

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Sebaceous carcinoma is a rare and aggressive cancer that commonly occurs on the eyelid. Symptoms may include a painless lump that bleeds, does not heal, or reoccurs. People may also develop sebaceous carcinoma on the head, neck, or other areas of the body.

Doctors may diagnose sebaceous carcinoma using a biopsy and treat it by surgically removing the tumor.

As the cancer can come back, people must attend follow-up appointments and examine their skin for any signs that sebaceous carcinoma may be developing again. A person’s outlook is generally good if doctors find and treat sebaceous carcinoma early.