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Skin cancer treatment

3-minute read

Skin cancers can be either melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancers. The vast majority of deaths from skin cancer are from melanoma. The two main types of non-melanoma skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs). Non-melanoma skin cancers are found more commonly on sun exposed areas such as the face or forearms.

In choosing the best treatment option, your doctor will consider your age and general health, the type and size of the skin cancer and where it is on your body. The treatment choice will also depend on whether the skin cancer has spread to other parts of your body. BCCs do not spread to distant parts of the  body but can invade local tissues. SCCs occasionally spread to nearby lymph nodes and beyond, but melanomas cause the majority of deaths because of their ability to spread. This is known as metastasising.

Usually, the initial treatment is to cut out a skin lesion suspected of being cancer. This may be by doing a biopsy (a removal of a small sample of the lesion for analysis) or a full excision (removal), freezing or scraping the lesion.

If a lesion is suspected of being a melanoma, a ‘wide excision’ is done to ensure all the cancer is removed and to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading. A wide excision means removing the melanoma as well as a small amount of the surrounding, normal-looking skin.

After a skin cancer is removed, most people will have stitches to repair the wound. When a large skin cancer is removed, however,  the wound may require skin from other parts of the body to cover it. This can be done using a skin flap (when nearby skin is moved over the wound and stitched) or a skin graft (when skin is taken from elsewhere in the body and placed on the area).

Other treatments for non-melanoma skin cancers, depending on the type, size and location of the cancer, include:

  • cryotherapy: where liquid nitrogen is sprayed onto the spot and a small amount of normal skin around it, to treat, freeze and kill cancer cells in superficial BCCs
  • immunotherapy and chemotherapy creams and lotions: where cream is directly applied to treat skin cancers that affect the top layer of the skin
  • curettage and cautery: where a doctor gently removes the cancer with a sharp tool, and uses low-level electric current to stop bleeding and destroy any remaining cancer
  • photodynamic therapy: which uses a light source and cream to treat superficial BCCs

Other treatment options for skin cancers that have spread or may have spread to other parts of the body include:

  • surgery (such as removal of lymph nodes)
  • radiotherapy: where x-rays are used to kill cancer cells
  • targeted therapy: where drugs are used to attack the genes of the melanoma cells
  • immunotherapy: where drugs that stimulate the body's immune system are used to fight the cancer
  • chemotherapy: this may be used in some cases, but generally chemotherapy drugs have not been effective in treating melanoma

Regardless of the treatments available, it’s important to remember that detecting a skin cancer early on improves the chance of treatment being successful.

Get to know your skin. If you find a suspicious spot, see your doctor as soon as possible. Skin cancer is diagnosed by physical examination and biopsy. Your doctor may be able to do this initial procedure, or they can refer you to a dermatologist or surgeon.

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Last reviewed: July 2018

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