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Why is immunotherapy cream used to treat skin cancer?

Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD
Dermatology

A topical medicine called imiquimod is an immunomodulator. It is designed to both diagnose cancers and stimulate the body's immune system to rev up an attack on malignant cells. This is a great option for treating actinic keratoses (AKs), in situ squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), or early-stage basal cell carcinoma (BCC) or for someone who has many early or precancerous lesions in one area. It could prevent a potentially disfiguring surgical procedure and can eradicate approximately 80 percent of precancers and early superficial skin cancers.

Imiquimod is applied to an entire area of sun-damaged skin (the forehead, for instance) for four to sixteen weeks. In that time, certain spots may become red, indicating a cancerous lesion, since the redness means that inflammatory cells are attacking in that particular place. Similar in theory to the immunotherapy used for melanoma, this treatment causes the body to recognize and mount an assault on mutant cells. Although they work in different ways, both of these topical therapies are used for the same end point: preventing precancers (or very superficial tumors on the surface of the skin) from becoming cancers or spreading. Unfortunately, the side effects of both medications can include itching, redness, blistering, flaking, and overall irritation.

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Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin

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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.