Treatment for skin cancer
Surgery is the most common treatment for skin cancer. Other forms of treatment include laser therapy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, biological therapy, topical treatments, and photodynamic therapy.
- Excision: Small skin cancers can be removed by cutting them out . If the tumour is large, more of the nearby skin is removed. As a result, you may need a skin graft or skin flap to cover the area.
- Moh's technique: This is specialised surgery where tissue is removed piece by piece and looked at under the microscope until no traces of cancer cells are left. A skin graft is usually needed afterwards.
- Cryotherapy: If the cancer is quite small, the cells can be frozen and killed by spraying liquid nitrogen onto them.
- Curettage and electrocautery: If you have a cancer that is not very deep, curettage and electrocautery may be used instead of excision. This means scraping away the cancer and using heat or electricity to stop any bleeding. Nowadays, it is not commonly done.
- Lymphadenectomy: This is surgery to remove the lymph nodes near the cancer. It may be done for squamous cell cancer or malignant melanoma.
Laser therapy may be used to treat superficial skin cancers and precancerous growths on the lips. It involves putting a precise, intense beam of light on the growth, which is then destroyed. It causes very little damage to nearby tissue. There is also very little bleeding, swelling and scarring involved.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to shrink or destroy the cancer cells. It can be used in areas where surgery might be difficult or cause scarring. This could be the nose, ears, lips or eyelids. It also works well for large cancers that have grown deeply into the skin. For more information, see our Understanding Radiotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page.
Chemotherapy is a treatment using drugs that cure or control cancer. It is not commonly used for skin cancers. For superficial skin cancers a cream is put onto the skin directly. Very occasionally it is used when it has spread to other parts of the body. Please see our Understanding Chemotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.
This therapy uses the body's immune system to treat skin cancer. Biological therapy is also called immunotherapy. Imiquimod (Aldara) is a drug that can be put onto your skin to help your immune system fight skin cancer.
Some drugs can improve sun-damaged skin. These include Tazarotene, Aldara, Solaraze and Efudix. They are applied to the skin in the form of a cream and can help to prevent skin cancer developing.
Photodynamic therapy PDT is a new type of treatment for skin cancer. It uses a beam of visible light along with a light-sensitive drug to destroy the cancer cells. It is useful for treating superficial skin cancers, eg. Bowen's disease, solar keratoses or superficial basal cell cancers.
For more information about the above types of treatment, see our Understanding Cancer of the Skin booklet.
The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your general health. Surgery may cause some scarring in the affected area. Depending on how much skin is removed, you may need a skin graft or skin flap.
Some treatments may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments may cause fatigue. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment.
If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.