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 live with this uncertainty and are leading full lives. Our document called Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence, gives more detailed information on this.
For small number of people with more advanced cancers, it may never go away completely. These people 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. Our document When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away talks more about this.
If you have completed treatment, your doctors will still want to watch you closely and will likely recommend that you examine your skin once a month. Family members and friends can also be asked to watch for new lesions in areas that are hard to see.
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. It’s also very important to protect yourself from getting too much sun, which can increase your risk of new skin cancers.
You should have follow-up exams as advised by your doctor. Your schedule for follow-up visits will depend on the type of 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 the 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 may last for a few weeks to several 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 cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may find yourself seeing a new doctor who does not know about your medical history. It’s important that you 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:
- 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 doctors prepare when patients are 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
It’s also 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: 10/21/2013
Last Revised: 02/20/2014