Treatment for skin cancer
In treating skin cancer, the doctor's main goal is to remove or
destroy the cancer completely with as small a scar as possible. To
plan the best treatment for each patient, the doctor considers:
- The location and size of the cancer
- The risk of scarring
- The person's age, general health, and medical history.
It is sometimes helpful to have the advice of more than one
doctor before starting treatment. It may take a week or two to
arrange for a second opinion, but this short delay will not reduce
the chance that treatment will be successful. There are a number of
ways to find a doctor for a second opinion. The patient's doctor
may be able to suggest a doctor, such as a dermatologist or a
plastic surgeon, who has a special interest in skin cancer.
Treatment for skin cancer usually involves some type of surgery.
In some cases, doctors suggest radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Sometimes a combination of these methods is used.
Many skin cancers can be cut from the skin quickly and easily.
In fact, the cancer is sometimes completely removed at the time of
the biopsy, and no further treatment is needed.
- Curettage and electrodesiccation
Doctors commonly use a type of surgery called curettage. After a
local anesthetic numbs the area, the cancer is scooped out with a
curette, an instrument with a sharp, spoon-shaped end. The area is
also treated by electrodesiccation. An electric current from a
special machine is used to control bleeding and kill any cancer
cells remaining around the edge of the wound. Most patients develop
a flat, white scar.
- Mohs' surgery
Mohs' technique is a special type of surgery used for skin cancer.
Its purpose is to remove all of the cancerous tissue and as little
of the healthy tissue as possible. It is especially helpful when
the doctor is not sure of the shape and depth of the tumor. In
addition, this method is used to remove large tumors, those in
hard-to-treat places, and cancers that have recurred. The patient
is given a local anesthetic, and the cancer is shaved off one thin
layer at a time. Each layer is checked under a microscope until the
entire tumor is removed. The degree of scarring depends on the
location and size of the treated area. This method should be used
only by doctors who are specially trained in this type of
Extreme cold may be used to treat precancerous skin conditions,
such as actinic keratosis, as well as certain small skin cancers.
In cryosurgery, liquid nitrogen is applied to the growth to freeze
and kill the abnormal cells. After the area thaws, the dead tissue
falls off. More than one freezing may be needed to remove the
growth completely. Cryosurgery usually does not hurt, but patients
may have pain and swelling after the area thaws. A white scar may
form in the treated area.
- Laser therapy
Laser therapy uses a narrow beam of light to remove or destroy
cancer cells. This approach is sometimes used for cancers that
involve only the outer layer of skin.
Sometimes, especially when a large cancer is removed, a skin graft
is needed to close the wound and reduce the amount of scarring. For
this procedure, the doctor takes a piece of healthy skin from
another part of the body to replace the skin that was removed.
Skin cancer responds well to radiation therapy (also called
radiotherapy), which uses high-energy rays to damage cancer cells
and stop them from growing. Doctors often use this treatment for
cancers that occur in areas that are hard to treat with surgery.
For example, radiation therapy might be used for cancers of the
eyelid, the tip of the nose, or the ear. Several treatments may be
needed to destroy all of the cancer cells. Radiation therapy may
cause a rash or make the skin in the area dry or red. Changes in
skin color and/or texture may develop after the treatment is over
and may become more noticeable many years later.
Topical chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs in a cream
or lotion applied to the skin. Actinic keratosis can be treated
effectively with the anticancer drug fluorouracil (also called
5-FU). This treatment is also useful for cancers limited to the top
layer of skin. The 5-FU is applied daily for several weeks. Intense
inflammation is common during treatment, but scars usually do not
In clinical trials (research studies with cancer patients),
doctors are studying new treatments for skin cancer. For example,
they are exploring photodynamic therapy, a treatment that destroys
cancer cells with a combination of laser light and drugs that make
the cells sensitive to light. Biological therapy (also called
immunotherapy) is a form of treatment to improve the body's natural
ability to fight cancer. Interferon and tumor necrosis factor are
types of biological therapy under study for skin cancer.
Even though most skin cancers are cured, the disease can recur
in the same place. Also, people who have been treated for skin
cancer have a higher-than-average risk of developing a new cancer
elsewhere on the skin. That's why it is so important for them to
continue to examine themselves regularly, to visit their doctor for
regular checkups, and to follow the doctor's instructions on how to
reduce the risk of developing skin cancer again.
National Cancer Institute,
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to
starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a
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