Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell

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Treating Skin Cancer - Basal and Squamous Cell TOPICS

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, systemic chemotherapy can attack cancer cells that have spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

For squamous cell carcinoma that has spread, chemo drugs such as cisplatin, doxorubicin, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), topotecan, and etoposide might be used. These drugs are given into a vein (intravenously), usually once every few weeks. They can often slow the spread of these cancers and relieve some symptoms. In some cases, they may 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, and 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 attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made), the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemo, which can lead to side effects.

The side effects of chemo depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are used. These side effects may include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased risk of infection (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells)

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 in terms of side effects.

There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can be given to 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 chemotherapy, see the Chemotherapy section of our website, or read A Guide to Chemotherapy.


Last Medical Review: 04/02/2015
Last Revised: 04/03/2015