Melissa Juried Kriebel
Treatments for skin cancer include surgery, drug therapies, such as chemotherapy, and other treatments, such as chemical peels and cryotherapy. In some cases, people may have a combination of treatments.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common forms of skin cancer. Doctors may also refer to this type of skin cancer as nonmelanoma skin cancer.
Melanoma is another type of skin cancer that can spread easily. To treat them, people may undergo surgery, drug therapy, or radiation therapy.
Doctors may also treat precancerous changes in the skin that could develop into skin cancer, known as actinic keratosis.
This article looks at the different types of treatment for skin cancer, including surgery, drug therapy, and other treatments.
The type of treatment people will have may depend on:
- where the skin cancer occurs in the body
- the stage of cancer
- the type of skin cancer
- how large and how deep the tumor is after a biopsy
- the likelihood of the cancer spreading or returning
Surgery is a common treatment method for basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. Surgery aims to remove parts of the skin with cancer cells.
If surgery is not a suitable option, if the tumor is too large to remove with surgery, or if the skin cancer has spread, other treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, may be an option.
Drug therapy uses anticancer drugs to target and destroy cancer cells. People may have this type of treatment on its own or to shrink an area of skin cancer before having surgery or radiation therapy.
Other cancer treatments, such as cryotherapy or chemical peels, may be suitable for precancerous skin changes or small areas of skin cancer.
There are various types of surgery to treat skin cancer. They include:
Excisional surgery involves removing an area of skin cancer. A surgeon will first numb the skin using a local anesthetic. They will then use a surgical knife to cut away the tumor and a small part of the surrounding skin.
A surgeon will then stitch the skin together for it to heal, which will leave a scar.
Doctors may recommend Mohs surgery if there is a high risk that skin cancer will return after treatment. They may also recommend it for treating cancers in areas requiring extra care, including near the eyes, the center of the face, or the ears.
These facial areas are cosmetically sensitive, so this procedure allows the dermatologist to remove the minimum amount of tissue to remove the cancer.
A surgeon with specialist training in Mohs surgery will carry out the procedure. They will remove thin layers of skin at a time and check each one for cancer cells.
They will continue removing layers of skin until no cancer cells are present.
Mohs surgery is a time-consuming procedure, but it may provide better outcomes than other types of surgery or treatments. It can also help preserve more healthy skin in the treatment area.
Electrosurgery involves using a curette, a sharp, spoon-shaped instrument, and an electrode.
A surgeon will use the curette to cut away a tumor from the skin before using an electrode to apply an electric current. This stops any bleeding and kills the remaining cancer cells surrounding the wound.
Sentinel node biopsy
For deeper or more advanced stage melanoma and large or recurring nonmelanoma skin cancers, doctors may need to assess whether the skin cancer has spread to a person’s lymph nodes.
This procedure, called a sentinel node biopsy, involves injecting a dye, a radioactive marker, or both into the skin near the cancer. This allows healthcare professionals to check the lymph nodes in the nearby area, such as the groin, armpit, or neck.
This type of biopsy is a same-day procedure, which a surgeon usually carries out at the same time as a skin cancer excision. They will make a small incision in one of these areas and remove one or several lymph nodes. They will then close the incision and examine the lymph nodes for cancer cells.
A person may have the following types of drug therapy to treat skin cancer:
Chemotherapy is a treatment using anticancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. People will take chemotherapy drugs orally or through an injection.
People may have chemotherapy if the skin cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body. They may also undergo this treatment to shrink a large tumor, before having other treatments, such as surgery.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that identify specific cancer cells and destroy them. Targeted therapy may cause less damage to healthy cells than radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Other drug therapy
In some cases, doctors may prescribe retinoids to treat squamous cell carcinoma. Topical drugs, such as diclofenac and ingenol, may also help treat actinic keratosis. Fluorouracil is another common medication that can take the form of a topical cream or chemotherapy drug for treating precancerous lesions.
Learn more about chemotherapy.
People may have radiation therapy if they are not suitable candidates for surgery or if a large tumor is difficult to remove.
Radiation therapy uses a machine, similar to an X-ray, to target radiation onto the area of skin cancer and kill cancer cells.
Learn more about types of radiation therapy.
Cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy cancer cells. Doctors may use this technique to treat actinic keratosis or small areas of skin cancer.
After treatment, the area of skin will swell and blister before crusting over and healing. The skin may take 1–2 months to heal after cryotherapy, and people may have a scar or slight change in skin color in the area.
Doctors may use photodynamic therapy to treat skin cancer and actinic keratoses.
They will inject a special chemical into a vein or onto the skin. The chemical becomes active following exposure to light.
A doctor will shine a laser light onto cancer cells, which allows the drug to become active and kill cancer cells while causing minimal harm to healthy cells.
Immunotherapy, or biologic therapy, uses substances that help boost the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
Learn about immunotherapy versus chemotherapy here.
Doctors may use chemical peels if actinic keratosis is present. A chemical solution dissolves the uppermost layer of skin cells to remove precancerous cells.
Side effects may vary for each person and may depend on the type of skin cancer treatments people have. Possible side effects of skin cancer treatment include:
People can discuss any potential side effects or any side effects they experience with their healthcare team. There are usually ways to reduce side effects.
Skin cancer is highly treatable with early diagnosis and prompt treatment. Treatment options include surgery, therapy with anticancer drugs, or other treatments to support the immune system or kill cancer cells.
If people notice symptoms of skin cancer or any unusual changes in their skin, they will need to speak with a doctor as soon as possible to determine the underlying cause.