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Non-melanoma skin cancer

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Treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer

Treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer is given by cancer specialists (oncologists). Some specialize in surgery, some in radiation therapy and others in chemotherapy (drugs). These doctors work with the person with cancer to decide on a treatment plan. The goals of treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer include:

  • completely removing the tumour or lesion
  • preserving or protecting normal tissue
  • restoring normal function
  • good cosmetic outcome

Treatment plans are designed to meet the unique needs of each person with cancer. Treatment decisions for non-melanoma skin cancer are based on:

  • type of tumour
  • location of the tumour
  • size of the tumour
  • depth of invasion
  • aggressiveness of the tumour (if it is high or low risk)
  • person’s age
  • person’s overall health

Treatment options for non-melanoma skin cancer

  • surgery
    • Surgery is the primary treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer.
    • There are a number of surgical methods used:
      • Simple surgical excision is the most common method used to treat non-melanoma skin cancer.
      • Curettage with electrodesiccation may be used to treat small, low-risk non-melanoma skin cancers.
      • Mohs micrographic surgery is used to treat certain types of non-melanoma skin cancer.
      • Lymph node removal may be necessary if cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes.
      • Reconstruction may be necessary for large non-melanoma skin cancers.
  • radiation therapy
    • Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat non-melanoma skin cancer.
    • Radiation therapy is used as an alternative to surgery when:
      • the cancer covers a large area
      • surgery is difficult because of the location of the tumour
      • the person is elderly or not healthy enough to have surgery
      • the person chooses not to have surgery
    • Radiation therapy may be used in addition to surgery or to treat advanced non-melanoma skin cancer.
  • cryosurgery
    • Cryosurgery may be used for small, superficial, well-defined tumours.
  • photodynamic therapy
    • Photodynamic therapy is a newer treatment for skin cancer.
    • Photodynamic therapy may be used as an alternative to surgery for a large tumour that is not too deep or where there are several cancers in an area.
  • chemotherapy
    • Topical chemotherapy may be used to treat precancerous tumours or superficial non-melanoma skin tumours.
    • Systemic chemotherapy is not commonly used but may be given for recurrent cancer that cannot be controlled with surgery or radiation therapy.
  • biological therapy
    • Topical biological therapy may be used to treat some non-melanoma skin cancers.
  • targeted therapy
    • Targeted therapy may be used to treat advanced or metastatic basal cell carcinoma (BCC) when someone can’t or doesn’t want to have surgery or radiation therapy.
  • follow-up after treatment is finished
    • It is important to have regular follow-up visits, especially in the first 5 years after treatment.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials investigate new and better ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer. There are some clinical trials in Canada that are open to people with non-melanoma skin cancer. For more information, go to clinical trials.

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about treatment.

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