Non-melanoma skin cancer

You are here: 

Photodynamic therapy for non-melanoma skin cancer

A few people with non-melanoma skin cancer have photodynamic therapy (PDT). It uses photosensitizer drugs to destroy cancer cells. These drugs make cells sensitive to light.

PDT may be used to treat:

  • basal cell carcinoma (BCC) on the surface of the skin (superficial BCC)
  • squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in situ
  • actinic keratosis, a precancerous condition of the skin

PDT is most often offered when surgery can’t be done or when how the skin looks is important. In most cases, there is a higher risk of the cancer coming back (recurring) after PDT than after surgery. But with PDT, there is a better chance that the skin will look good. Your healthcare team will consider this when deciding if PDT is right for you.

How PDT is given

PDT is given in 2 stages. First, you are given the photosensitizer drug. It is applied to the abnormal area as a cream. All cells absorb the photosensitizer but it stays in the cancer cells longer than it does in normal cells. The photosensitizer drug used for non-melanoma skin cancer is methyl aminolevulinate.

After a certain amount of time, cancer cells containing the photosensitizer are exposed to a low-intensity red light. The photosensitizer in the cancer cells absorbs the light and a chemical reaction kills the cancer cells. Most normal cells are not affected.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Side effects can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after PDT. Most side effects go away when treatment is over.

Side effects of PDT for non-melanoma skin cancer caninclude:

  • sensitivity to light of the skin and eyes (called photosensitivity), which usually lasts 4–6 days after treatment or longer
  • pain at the site, including burning and stinging
  • red, itchy skin
  • swelling (edema)

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from PDT. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.


Ray Ellis in fireman gear Because of smoke inhalation and exposure to toxic chemicals, I live with the fear of cancer virtually every day.

Read Ray's story

Volunteers provide comfort and kindness

Illustration of volunteers

Thousands of Canadian Cancer Society volunteers work in regional cancer centres, lodges and community hospitals to support people receiving treatment.

Learn more