Treating Skin Cancer Without Surgery
Posted on 05/08/2014 on behalf of Dr. Kenrick Spence, M.D., F.A.C.S.
By: Jeffrey B. Stricker
Our series of blog posts on skin cancer awareness initially focused on early detection, but let's look now at what happens once skin cancer is found. Treating skin cancer in its early stages has remarkable success rates, and we're seeing more and more people understand the importance of conducting regular self-exams as part of a skin care regimen. At our locations in Orlando and The Villages, I offer non-surgical treatment options for skin cancer patients.
While Mohs surgery is the single most effective treatment for most basal cell and squamous cell cancers (which make up the vast majority of diagnosed skin cancers), non-surgical treatments have been proven effective in certain cases, and patients generally find these options attractive. Here are some options for treating skin cancer that don't require surgery:
- Radiation therapy: High-energy rays can kill cancer cells as a primary treatment or combined with other non-surgical treatments. Radiation therapy is useful for older patients or people who are in poor general health and cannot have surgery. Radiation is also a good option for large tumors or cancer located where surgical excision is difficult.
- Photodynamic therapy, or PDT: This option is especially useful for patients with several basal cell lesions. The treatment involves applying a photosensitizing agent directly to the tumors, which absorb the agent. The following day, a strong light aimed at the tumors activates the medicated areas. PDT selectively destroys cancer cells while limiting damage to healthy tissue surrounding the tumors. The treatment is approved by the FDA for superficial basal cell carcinomas, but it is also used in certain cases for squamous cell skin cancer.
- Chemotherapy: Topical chemotherapy uses a cream or ointment that includes anti-cancer medicine to treat actinic keratoses and very superficial squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. The drug most commonly used is 5-fluorouracil, which is applied to the skin once or twice a day for several weeks. Unlike chemotherapy that uses injections or pills (systemic chemo), topical treatment doesn't result in side effects normally associated with chemo.
- Immunotherapy: Certain drugs boost the body's immune system's response to skin cancer. A cream applied to lesions or basal cell cancers detected in their earliest stages causes the immune system to react and destroy the lesion. A drug called Interferon injected into a tumor spurs the body's immune response against the cancer, but it may not be as effective as other treatments.
Cryosurgery is also considered a non-surgical treatment option for skin cancer. Liquid nitrogen is used to destroy cancerous tissue. It is effective for the most common forms of skin cancer and is used for bleeding tumors and for patients who can't tolerate anesthesia.