Skin Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]

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Skin Cancer Treatment

General Information About Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the skin.

The skin is the body's largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. Skin also helps control body temperature and stores water, fat, and vitamin D. The skin has several layers, but the two main layers are the epidermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer). Skin cancer begins in the epidermis, which is made up of 3 kinds of cells:

  • Squamous cells: Thin, flat cells that form the top layer of the epidermis.
  • Basal cells: Round cells under the squamous cells.
  • Melanocytes: Found in the lower part of the epidermis, these cells make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment, causing the skin to darken.

Skin anatomy; drawing shows layers of the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue including hair shafts and follicles, oil glands, lymph vessels, nerves, fatty tissue, veins, arteries, and a sweat gland.
Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue.

Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body, but it is most common in skin that is often exposed to sunlight, such as the face, neck, hands, and arms. There are several types of cancer that start in the skin. The most common types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which are nonmelanoma skin cancers. Actinic keratosis is a skin condition that sometimes develops into squamous cell carcinoma.

This summary refers to the treatment of nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis. Nonmelanoma skin cancers rarely spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma, the rarest form of skin cancer, is more likely to invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. See the following PDQ summaries for information on melanoma and other kinds of skin cancer:

  • Melanoma Treatment
  • Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome Treatment
  • Kaposi Sarcoma Treatment

Skin color and exposure to sunlight can affect the risk of developing nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma include the following:

  • Being exposed to a lot of natural or artificial sunlight.
  • Having a fair complexion (blond or red hair, fair skin, green or blue eyes, history of freckling).
  • Having scars or burns on the skin.
  • Being exposed to arsenic.
  • Having chronic skin inflammation or skin ulcers.
  • Being treated with radiation.
  • Taking immunosuppressivedrugs (for example, after an organ transplant).
  • Having actinic keratosis.

Risk factors for actinic keratosis include the following:

  • Being exposed to a lot of sunlight.
  • Having a fair complexion (blond or red hair, fair skin, green or blue eyes, history of freckling).

Nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis often appear as a change in the skin.

Not all changes in the skin are a sign of nonmelanoma skin cancer or actinic keratosis, but a doctor should be consulted if changes in the skin are seen.

Possible signs of nonmelanoma skin cancer include the following:

  • A sore that does not heal.
  • Areas of the skin that are:
    • Small, raised, smooth, shiny, and waxy.
    • Small, raised, and red or reddish-brown.
    • Flat, rough, red or brown, and scaly.
    • Scaly, bleeding, or crusty.
    • Similar to a scar and firm.

Possible signs of actinic keratosis include the following:

  • A rough, red, pink, or brown, raised, scaly patch on the skin.
  • Cracking or peeling of the lower lip that is not helped by lip balm or petroleum jelly.

Tests or procedures that examine the skin are used to detect (find) and diagnose nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis.

The following procedures may be used:

  • Skin examination: A doctor or nurse checks the skin for bumps or spots that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture.
  • Biopsy: All or part of the abnormal-looking growth is cut from the skin and viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to see if cancer cells are present. There are 3 main types of skin biopsies:
    • Shave biopsy: A sterile razor blade is used to "shave-off" the abnormal-looking growth.
    • Punch biopsy: A special instrument called a punch or a trephine is used to remove a circle of tissue from the abnormal-looking growth.
      Punch biopsy; drawing shows a hollow, circular scalpel being inserted into a lesion on the skin of a patient's forearm. The instrument is turned clockwise and counterclockwise to cut into the skin and a small sample of tissue is removed to be checked under a microscope. The pullout shows that the instrument cuts down about 4 millimeters (mm) to the layer of fatty tissue below the dermis.
      Punch biopsy. A hollow, circular scalpel is used to cut into a lesion on the skin. The instrument is turned clockwise and counterclockwise to cut down about 4 millimeters (mm) to the layer of fatty tissue below the dermis. A small sample of tissue is removed to be checked under a microscope. Skin thickness is different on different parts of the body.
    • Excisional biopsy: A scalpel is used to remove the entire growth.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends mostly on the stage of the cancer and the type of treatment used to remove the cancer.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it has spread deeper into the skin or to other places in the body).
  • The type of cancer.
  • The size and location of the tumor.
  • The patient's general health.

Stages of Skin Cancer

After nonmelanoma skin cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the skin or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the skin or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. A biopsy is often the only test needed to determine the stage of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Lymph nodes may be examined in cases of squamous cell carcinoma to see if cancer has spread to them.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for nonmelanoma skin cancer:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

Stage 0 nonmelanoma; drawing shows skin anatomy with abnormal cells in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin). Also shown are the dermis (inner layer of the skin) and subcutaneous tissue below the dermis.
Stage 0 nonmelanoma. Abnormal cells are shown in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin).

In stage 0, abnormalcells are found in the squamous cell or basal cell layer of the epidermis (topmost layer of the skin). These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Tumor size compared to everyday objects; shows various measurements of a tumor compared to a pea, peanut, walnut, and lime
Pea, peanut, walnut, and lime show tumor sizes.

Stage I

Stage I nonmelanoma skin cancer; drawing shows a tumor in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) that is no more than 2 centimeters wide. Also shown are the dermis (inner layer of the skin) and the subcutaneous tissue below the dermis.
Stage I nonmelanoma skin cancer. The tumor is no more than 2 centimeters.

In stage I, cancer has formed and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.

Stage II

Stage II nonmelanoma skin cancer; drawing shows a tumor that is more than 2 centimeters wide that has spread from the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) into the dermis (inner layer of the skin). Also shown is the subcutaneous tissue below the dermis.
Stage II nonmelanoma skin cancer. The tumor is more than 2 centimeters wide.

In stage II, the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters.

Stage III

Stage III nonmelanoma skin cancer; drawing shows a tumor that has spread from the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) and dermis (inner layer of the skin) into the subcutaneous tissue and to cartilage, bone, or muscle below the skin and/or to nearby lymph nodes.
Stage III nonmelanoma skin cancer. The tumor has spread below the skin to nearby tissues and/or lymph nodes.

In stage III, cancer has spread below the skin to cartilage, muscle, or bone and/or to nearby lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body.

Stage IV

Stage IV nonmelanoma skin cancer; drawing shows that the primary tumor has spread to other places in the body, such as the brain or lung. The pullout shows cancer in the lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and blood vessel in the arm with the primary tumor.
Stage IV nonmelanoma skin cancer. The tumor has spread to other places in the body, such as the brain or lung.

In stage IV, cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Treatment choices are based on the type of nonmelanoma skin cancer or precancerous skin condition diagnosed:

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It usually occurs on areas of the skin that have been in the sun, most often the nose. Often this cancer appears as a small raised bump that has a smooth, pearly appearance. Another type looks like a scar and is flat and firm to the touch. Basal cell carcinoma may spread to tissues around the cancer, but it usually does not spread to other parts of the body.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma occurs on areas of the skin that have been in the sun, such as the ears, lower lip, and the back of the hands. Squamous cell carcinoma may also appear on areas of the skin that have been burned or exposed to chemicals or radiation. Often this cancer appears as a firm red bump. Sometimes the tumor may feel scaly or bleed or develop a crust. Squamous cell tumors may spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis is a skin condition that is not cancer, but sometimes changes into squamous cell carcinoma. It usually occurs in areas that have been exposed to the sun, such as the face, the back of the hands, and the lower lip. It appears as rough, red, pink, or brown, raised, scaly patches on the skin, or cracking or peeling of the lower lip that is not helped by lip balm or petroleum jelly.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Four types of standard treatment are used:

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.
    Mohs surgery; drawing shows a patient with skin cancer on the face. The pullout shows a block of skin with cancer in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) and the dermis (inner layer of the skin). A visible lesion is shown on the skin's surface. Four numbered blocks show the removal of thin layers of the skin one at a time until all the cancer is removed.
    Mohs surgery. A surgical procedure to remove skin cancer in several steps. First, a thin layer of cancerous tissue is removed. Then, a second thin layer of tissue is removed and viewed under a microscope to check for cancer cells. More layers are removed one at a time until the tissue viewed under a microscope shows no remaining cancer. This type of surgery is used to remove 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 abnormaltissue, such as carcinoma in situ. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.
    Cryosurgery; drawing shows an instrument with a nozzle held over an abnormal area on the lower arm of a patient. Inset shows a spray of liquid nitrogen or liquid carbon dioxide coming from the nozzle and covering the abnormal lesion. Freezing destroys the lesion.
    Cryosurgery. An instrument with a nozzle is used to spray liquid nitrogen or liquid carbon dioxide to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue.
  • 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. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

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. 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 (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Chemotherapy for nonmelanoma skin cancer and actinic keratosis is usually topical (applied to the skin in a cream or lotion). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the condition being treated.

Retinoids (drugs related to vitamin A) are sometimes used to treat or prevent nonmelanoma skin cancer. The retinoids may be taken by mouth or applied to the skin. The use of retinoids is being studied in clinical trials for treatment of squamous cell carcinoma.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a cancer treatment that uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells. A drug that is not active until it is exposed to light is injected into a vein. The drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. For skin cancer, laser light is shined onto the skin and the drug becomes active and kills the cancer cells. Photodynamic therapy causes little damage to healthy tissue.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Biologic therapy

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.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's clinical trials database.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options for Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Treatment of basal cell carcinoma may include the following:

  • Mohs micrographic surgery.
  • Simple excision.
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage.
  • Cryosurgery.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Laser surgery.
  • Topical chemotherapy with fluorouracil.
  • Photodynamic therapy.
  • A clinical trial of biologic therapy.

Follow-up skin exams are important for people with basal cell carcinoma because they are likely to have a new or recurrent tumor within 5 years of the first one. After treatment, the patient should have skin exams every 6 months for 5 years and once a year after that.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry that are now accepting patients with basal cell carcinoma of the skin. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Treatment of squamous cell carcinoma may include the following:

  • Mohs micrographic surgery.
  • Simple excision.
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage.
  • Cryosurgery.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Topical chemotherapy with fluorouracil.
  • Laser surgery.
  • A clinical trial of biologic therapy.
  • A clinical trial of biologic therapy and retinoids.

Follow-up skin exams are important for people with squamous cell carcinoma. Because squamous cell carcinoma can spread, patients should have skin exams every 3 months for several years after treatment and then every 6 months.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry that are now accepting patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Treatment Options for Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis is not cancer but is treated because it may develop into cancer. Treatment of actinic keratosis may include the following:

  • Topical chemotherapy.
  • Cryosurgery.
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage.
  • Dermabrasion.
  • Shave excision.
  • Laser surgery.
  • Photodynamic therapy.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry that are now accepting patients with actinic keratosis. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Skin Cancer

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about skin cancer, see the following:

  • Skin Cancer Home Page
  • What You Need to Know About™ Skin Cancer
  • Skin Cancer Prevention
  • Skin Cancer Screening
  • Cryosurgery in Cancer Treatment: Questions and Answers
  • Lasers in Cancer Treatment: Questions and Answers
  • Photodynamic Therapy for Cancer: Questions and Answers

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:

  • What You Need to Know About™ Cancer - An Overview
  • Understanding Cancer Series: Cancer
  • Staging: Questions and Answers
  • Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
  • Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
  • Coping with Cancer: Supportive and Palliative Care
  • Cancer Library
  • Information For Survivors/Caregivers/Advocates

Get More Information From NCI

CALL 1-800-4-CANCER

For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

CHAT ONLINE

The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.

WRITE TO US

For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

NCI Public Inquiries Office
Suite 3036A
6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322

SEARCH THE NCI WEB SITE

The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.

There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.

FIND PUBLICATIONS

The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Changes to This Summary (03 / 31 / 2009)

The PDQcancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Images were added to this summary.

About PDQ

PDQ IS A COMPREHENSIVE CANCER DATABASE AVAILABLE ON NCI'S WEB SITE.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ CONTAINS CANCER INFORMATION SUMMARIES.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

THE PDQ CANCER INFORMATION SUMMARIES ARE DEVELOPED BY CANCER EXPERTS AND REVIEWED REGULARLY.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ ALSO CONTAINS INFORMATION ON CLINICAL TRIALS.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Date Last Modified: 2009-03-31


If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.


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