What will happen after treatment for basal and squamous cell skin cancers?
For most people with basal or squamous cell skin cancers, treatment will remove or destroy the cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You may be relieved to finish treatment, but find it hard not to worry about cancer growing or coming back. (When cancer comes back after treatment, it is called recurrent cancer or a recurrence.) This is a very common concern in people who have had cancer.
It may take a while before your fears lessen. But it may help to know that many cancer survivors have learned to accept this uncertainty and are living full lives. Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence, talks more about this.
For a small number of people with more advanced skin cancers, the cancer may never go away completely. They may get regular treatment with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or other treatments to try to help keep the cancer in check. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty. When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away talks more about this.
If you have completed treatment, your doctors will still want to watch you closely.
If skin cancer does recur, it is most likely to happen in the first 5 years after treatment. People who have had skin cancer are also at high risk for developing another one in a different location, so close follow-up is important.
Your doctor will probably recommend that you examine your skin at least once a month. This includes looking for any changes where the cancer was treated, as well as looking for any new areas of concern in other places. You can also ask someone close to you to watch for new suspicious areas in places that are hard to see.
It’s also very important to protect yourself from getting too much sun, which can increase your risk of new skin cancers.
Your schedule for follow-up visits will depend on the type of skin cancer you had and on other factors. Different doctors may recommend different schedules.
- For basal cell cancers, visits are often recommended about every 6 to 12 months.
- For squamous cell cancers, visits are usually more frequent, often every 3 to 6 months for the first few years, followed by longer times between visits.
During your follow-up visits, your doctor will ask about symptoms and examine you for signs of recurrence or new skin cancers. For higher risk cancers, such as squamous cell cancers that had reached the lymph nodes, the doctor may also order imaging tests such as CT scans. If skin cancer does recur, treatment options depend on the size and location of the cancer, what treatments you’ve had before, and your overall health.
Follow-up is also needed to check for possible side effects of certain treatments. This is a good time for you to ask your health care team any questions and to discuss any concerns you might have. Almost any cancer treatment can have side effects. Some might last for a few weeks or months, but others can be permanent. Tell your cancer care team about any symptoms or side effects that bother you so they can help you manage them.
Seeing a new doctor
At some point after your treatment, you may be seeing a new doctor who doesn’t know about your medical history. It’s important to be able to give your new doctor the details of your diagnosis and treatment. Gathering these details during and soon after treatment may be easier than trying to get them at some point in the future. Make sure you have this information handy (and always keep copies for yourself):
- A copy of your pathology report(s) from any biopsies or surgeries
- If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report(s)
- If you stayed in the hospital, a copy of the discharge summary that the doctor wrote when you were sent home
- If you had radiation therapy, a summary of the type and dose of radiation and when and where it was given
- If you had chemotherapy or targeted therapy, a list of your drugs, drug doses, and when you took them
- The names and contact information of the doctors who treated your cancer
It’s also very important to keep your health insurance. Tests and doctor visits cost a lot, and even though no one wants to think of their cancer coming back, this could happen.
Last Medical Review: 04/02/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016