Treatment Options

There are three primary treatments for patients with skin cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

In addition, biological therapy and photodynamic therapy are being studied. The choice of treatment depends on the location and extent of the cancer and the patient's overall health.

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for skin cancer and is used in the treatment of about 90 percent of skin cancer cases.

A doctor may remove the cancer using one of the following procedures:

  • Electrodesiccation and curettage uses an electric current to dehydrate the tumor (electrodesiccation), then often uses a specialized surgical tool (curet) to remove the tumor.

  • Cryosurgery involves freezing the tumor.

  • Simple excision cuts the cancer from the skin along with some of the healthy tissue around it.

  • Micrographic surgery is removal of the cancer and as little normal tissue as possible. During this surgery, the doctor removes the cancer and then uses a microscope to look at the cancerous area to make sure no cancer cells remain.

  • Laser therapy uses a highly focused beam of light that destroys only the cancer cells.

Surgery may leave a scar on the skin. Depending on the size of the cancer, skin may be taken from another part of the body and put on the area where the cancer was removed. This is called a skin graft.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy for skin cancer comes from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy).

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. In treating skin cancer, chemotherapy is often given as a cream or lotion placed on the skin to kill cancer cells (topical chemotherapy).

Chemotherapy may also be taken by pill, or it may be injected into a vein or muscle with a needle. Chemotherapy given in this way is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the skin. Systemic chemotherapy for skin cancer is being tested in clinical trials.

Biological therapy

Biological therapy (using the body's immune system to fight cancer) is also being tested in clinical trials.

Biological therapy tries to get the body to fight cancer. It uses materials made by the body or made in a laboratory to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against disease. Biological therapy is sometimes called biological response modifier (BRM) therapy or immunotherapy.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy uses a certain type of light and a special chemical to kill cancer cells.