Systemic Chemotherapy for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers

Systemic chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are injected into a vein or given by mouth. These drugs travel through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. Unlike topical chemotherapy, which is applied to the skin, systemic chemotherapy can attack cancer cells that have spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

If squamous cell carcinoma has spread, chemo drugs such as cisplatin, doxorubicin, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), capecitabine, topotecan, and etoposide might be used. These drugs are given into a vein (intravenously, or IV), usually once every few weeks. They can often slow the spread of these cancers and relieve some symptoms. In some cases, they might shrink tumors enough so that other treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy can be used.

Basal cell carcinoma very rarely reaches an advanced stage, so systemic chemotherapy is not typically used to treat these cancers. Advanced basal cell cancers are more likely to be treated with targeted therapy.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo drugs can cause side effects. These depend on the type and dose of drugs given and how long they are used. The side effects of chemo can include:

These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished. Some drugs can have specific effects that are not listed above, so be sure to talk with your cancer care team about what you might expect.

There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. Tell your medical team about any side effects or changes you notice while getting chemo so that they can be treated promptly.

To learn more about chemo, see the Chemotherapy section of our website.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: April 1, 2016 Last Revised: May 10, 2016

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please contact permissionrequest@cancer.org.