Skin Cancer Treatment Options
There are several ways to approach skin cancer treatment. Your oncologist will work with you to find the best combination given the stage and considering your overall health.
Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer Treatment
Six types of nonmelanoma skin cancer treatments are often used, alone or in combination. They are:
Melanoma Skin Cancer Treatment
Melanoma treatment includes nearly all of these options with the exception of photodynamic therapy.
Surgery is the primary treatment for melanoma, with possible follow up with other types of therapy. Nonmelanoma skin cancers are also often removed with surgery and may include other types of therapy depending whether it was basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer.
Surgery to treat skin cancer may be done in one of several ways. The method your oncologist recommends depends on the size and place of the growth and other factors.
Your oncologist can further describe these types of surgery:
- A wide-local excision (WLE) is a common treatment to remove skin cancer. After numbing the area, the surgeon removes the growth with a scalpel. The surgeon also removes a border of skin around the growth. This skin is the margin. The margin is examined under a microscope to be certain that all the cancer cells have been removed. The size of the margin depends on the size of the growth.
- Mohs surgery (also called Mohs micrographic surgery) is often used for skin cancer. The area of the growth is numbed. A specially trained surgeon shaves away thin layers of the growth. Each layer is immediately examined under a microscope. The surgeon continues to shave away tissue until no cancer cells can be seen under the microscope. In this way, the surgeon can remove all the cancer and only a small bit of healthy tissue.
- Electrodesiccation and curettage is often used to remove small basal cell skin cancers. The doctor numbs the area to be treated. The cancer is removed with a sharp tool shaped like a spoon. This tool is a curette. An electric current is sent into the treated area to control bleeding and kill any cancer cells that may be left. Electrodesiccation and curettage is usually a fast and simple procedure.
- Cryosurgery is often used for people who are not able to have other types of surgery. It uses extreme cold to treat early stage or very thin skin cancer. Liquid nitrogen creates the cold. The doctor applies liquid nitrogen directly to the skin growth. This treatment may cause swelling. It also may damage nerves, which can cause a loss of feeling in the damaged area. The NCI fact sheet “Cryosurgery in Cancer Treatment: Questions and Answers” has more information.
- Laser surgery uses a narrow beam of light to remove or destroy cancer cells. It is most often used for growths that are on the outer layer of skin only. The NCI fact sheet “Lasers in Cancer Treatment: Questions and Answers” has more information.
- Grafts are sometimes needed to close an opening in the skin left by surgery. The surgeon first numbs and then removes a patch of healthy skin from another part of the body, such as the upper thigh. The patch is then used to cover the area where skin cancer was removed. If you have a skin graft, you may have to take special care of the area until it heals.
- Lymphadenectomy: A surgical procedure in which the lymph nodes are removed and a sample of tissue is checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
- Sentinel lymph node biopsy: The removal of the sentinel lymph node (the first lymph node the cancer is likely to spread to from the tumor) during surgery. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. Many patients with basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers will be treated surgically with excellent results. For selected patients, especially those who cannot be treated surgically, HDR Brachytherapy provides an effective treatment alternative with few side effects. This is an in-office treatment performed by a Radiation Oncologist.
HDR Brachytherapy for skin cancer is:
- Customized for each individual patient
- Performed in a convenient outpatient setting
An applicator is connected to the HDR treatment unit. Then a tiny radioactive seed leaves the HDR unit, travels through some tubes which rests over each part of the skin cancer for a few seconds and delivers the treatment. After about 5 minutes, the seed has traveled over every part of the skin cancer and the treatment is complete. After the treatment, the seed is securely returned back into the HDR unit. The patient feels nothing during the treatment.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When a drug is put directly on the skin, the treatment is topical chemotherapy. It is most often used when the skin cancer is too large for surgery. It is also used when the doctor keeps finding new cancers.
Most often, the drug comes in a cream or lotion. It is usually applied to the skin one or two times a day for several weeks. A drug called fluorouracil (5-FU) is used to treat basal cell and squamous cell cancers that are in the top layer of the skin only. A drug called imiquimod also is used to treat basal cell cancer only in the top layer of skin.
When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body. This is called systemic chemotherapy.
When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas. This is regional chemotherapy.
One type of regional chemotherapy used for melanoma patients is used to inject the anticancer drugs directly to the arm or leg the cancer is in. The flow of blood to and from the limb is temporarily stopped with a tourniquet. A warm solution with the anticancer drugs is put directly into the blood of the limb. This gives a high dose of drugs to the area where the cancer is.
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Even if the doctor removes all the melanoma during surgery, there can be some left that can't be seen. Some patients may be offered chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Chemotherapy given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses a chemical along with a special light source, such as a laser light, to kill cancer cells. The chemical is a photosensitizing agent. A cream is applied to the skin or the chemical is injected. It stays in cancer cells longer than in normal cells. Several hours or days later, the special light is focused on the growth. The chemical becomes active and destroys nearby cancer cells.
PDT is used to treat cancer on or very near the surface of the skin.
The side effects of PDT are usually not serious. PDT may cause burning or stinging pain. It also may cause burns, swelling, or redness. It may scar healthy tissue near the growth. If you have PDT, you will need to avoid direct sunlight and bright indoor light for at least 6 weeks after treatment.
Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.
- Interferon and interleukin-2 (IL-2) are types of biologic therapy used to treat melanoma. Interferon affects the division of cancer cells and can slow tumor growth. IL-2 boosts the growth and activity of many immune cells, especially lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Lymphocytes can attack and kill cancer cells.
- Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) therapy is a type of biologic therapy used with other treatments for melanoma. TNF is a protein made by white blood cells in response to an antigen or infection. Tumor necrosis factor can be made in the laboratory and used as a treatment to kill cancer cells.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. The following types of targeted therapy are being used in the treatment of melanoma:
- Monoclonal antibody therapy: A cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies may be used with chemotherapy as adjuvant therapy. Ipilimumab is a monoclonal antibody used to treat melanoma.
- Signal transduction inhibitors: A substance that blocks signals that are passed from one molecule to another inside a cell. Blocking these signals may kill cancer cells. Vemurafenib is a signal transduction inhibitor used to treat advanced melanoma or tumors that cannot be removed by surgery.
- Oncolytic virus therapy: A type of targeted therapy that is being studied in the treatment of melanoma. Oncolytic virus therapy uses a virus that infects and breaks down cancer cells but not normal cells. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be given after oncolytic virus therapy to kill more cancer cells.
- Angiogenesis inhibitors: A type of targeted therapy that is being studied in the treatment of melanoma. Angiogenesis inhibitors block the growth of new blood vessels. In cancer treatment, they may be given to prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow.