How is skin cancer treated?

There are a variety of ways that skin cancer can be treated, depending often on the type of skin cancer. The most common types of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, are often treated with either elliptical excisional surgery, in which a margin of normal skin is taken around the tumor and sutured, under local anesthesia, or sometimes with a technique called Mohs micrographic surgery. This technique is used for skin cancers in high risk locations, skin cancers with high risk behavior, recurrent skin cancers, or skin cancers in younger patients and other indications. It allows complete margin evaluation while treating the skin cancer to ensure very high cure rates. Some skin cancers are also treated with electrodessication and curettage, a way of "scraping" the skin cancer away. Even topical creams are used for some skin cancers, again depending on the subtype of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of treatments. The treatment for skin cancer depends on the type of cancer, the size and place on the body, your general health and medical history and whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Sometimes all of the cancer is removed during the biopsy. In such cases, no more treatment is needed and your healthcare provider will let you know what will be the necessary follow-up.
Treatment options for skin cancer depend on the type of skin cancer, the size and location of the tumor, and whether the cancer has spread. Many times, doctors will use surgery as the first treatment, and there are many methods of surgery. Excisional surgery involves simply cutting out the growth and some surrounding tissue. A procedure called Mohs surgery is another method, which involves removing the tumor layer by layer and testing each layer for cancer. Curettage and electrodesiccation may also be used, which involves scraping off the tumor and then burning the base of the tumor with an electric needle. In other cases, doctors may recommend cryosurgery (freezing the tumor) or laser therapy (burning the tumor).

Non-surgical procedures may also be used to treat skin cancer. Doctors may recommend chemotherapy, either topical (applied to skin) or systemic (injected or taken by mouth), which uses strong drugs to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may also be used to treat skin cancer, and it is often used along with surgery. Talk to your doctor to determine the best treatment method for you.
Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine
Four types of standard treatment are used for skin cancer:

Surgery - One or more of the following surgical procedures may be used to treat nonmelanoma skin cancer or actinic keratosis:
  • Mohs micrographic surgery: The tumor is cut from the skin in thin layers. During surgery, the edges of the tumor and each layer of tumor removed are viewed through a microscope to check for cancer cells. Layers continue to be removed until no more cancer cells are seen. This type of surgery removes as little normal tissue as possible and is often used to remove skin cancer on the face.
  • Simple excision: The tumor is cut from the skin along with some of the normal skin around it.
  • Shave excision: The abnormal area is shaved off the surface of the skin with a small blade.
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage: The tumor is cut from the skin with a curette (a sharp, spoon-shaped tool). A needle-shaped electrode is then used to treat the area with an electric current that stops the bleeding and destroys cancer cells that remain around the edge of the wound. The process may be repeated one to three times during the surgery to remove all of the cancer.
  • Cryosurgery: A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue, such as carcinoma in situ. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.
  • Laser surgery: A surgical procedure that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) as a knife to make bloodless cuts in tissue or to remove a surface lesion such as a tumor.
  • Dermabrasion: Removal of the top layer of skin using a rotating wheel or small particles to rub away skin cells.
Radiation therapy - 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.

Chemotherapy - 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.

Photodynamic therapy - Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a cancer treatment that uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.