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Treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer
If you have non-melanoma skin cancer, your healthcare team will create a treatment plan just for you. It will be based on your health and specific information about the cancer. When deciding which treatments to offer for non-melanoma skin cancer, your healthcare team will consider:
- the type of non-melanoma skin cancer
- whether the cancer is low risk or high risk
- where the cancer is
- the size of the cancer
- how treatments will affect how you look
- your personal preferences
You may be offered one or more of the following treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer.
Surgery is the main treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer. Depending on the type, risk group, location and size of the cancer, you may have one or more of the following types of surgery.
Surgical excision removes the cancer along with some normal tissue around it (called the surgical margin). It is a common treatment option for non-melanoma skin cancers in all risk groups.
Mohs surgery removes the cancer in layers, little by little, until no cancer remains. It is mainly done for high-risk cancers, especially on the face.
Curettage and electrodesiccation uses a sharp tool (called a curette) to scrape the cancer. Then the area is treated with an electrical current to destroy any remaining cancer cells. It is commonly used for low-risk cancers on the surface of the skin. It is often used for tumours on the neck, trunk of the body, arms or legs.
Cryosurgery uses extreme cold to freeze and destroy tissue. It is mainly used to treat low-risk cancers, including basal cell carcinoma (BCC) on the trunk of the body, arms or legs and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) on the surface of the skin.
Reconstructive surgery repairs the skin and nearby area after the tumour is removed. It is done when a large area of skin is removed to make sure the cancer is completely gone. The doctor takes a piece of skin from another part of the body, called a skin graft or skin flap, to rebuild the area.
Lymph node dissection removes lymph nodes from the body. It is not used very often but may be done for non-melanoma skin cancer that has spread to lymph nodes.
External beam radiation therapy uses a machine to direct a beam of radiation to the area of skin and a small amount of nearby tissue. It is usually used instead of surgery to treat high-risk cancers, especially when surgery can’t be done or the cancer is in an area that is hard to treat with surgery. It is sometimes used to kill cancer left behind after surgery or to help control symptoms of advanced non-melanoma skin cancer.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses drugs that make cells sensitive to light to destroy cancer cells. PDT may be used to treat superficial BCC, SCC in situ and actinic keratosis. It is often used when surgery can’t be done or when the cancer is in a very visible place on your body.
Drug therapy is sometimes used to treat non-melanoma skin cancer, depending on where the cancer is located. Drugs can be given in different ways.
Topical therapy uses a cream or gel to put drugs directly on the skin. It may be used to treat small, superficial BCC on the neck, trunk of the body, arms or legs, SCC in situ and actinic keratosis.
Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on or inside cancer cells to stop the growth and spread of cancer cells. It is used for BCC and SCC that has spread to other organs (metastatic skin cancer) or has grown into nearby areas (locally advanced skin cancer) when surgery or radiation therapy can’t be used.
Systemic chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. It is usually only used for locally advanced or metastatic non-melanoma skin cancer.
Follow-up after treatment is an important part of cancer care. You will need to have regular follow-up visits, especially in the first 2–3 years after treatment has finished. These visits allow your healthcare team to monitor your progress and recovery from treatment.
A few clinical trials are open to people with non-melanoma skin cancer. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, find and treat cancer. Find out more about clinical trials.
Questions to ask about treatment
To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about treatment.
What’s the lifetime risk of getting cancer?
The latest Canadian Cancer Statistics report shows about half of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.