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.

One or more chemo drugs may be used to treat squamous cell carcinoma that has spread. Chemo drugs such as cisplatin, doxorubicin, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), topotecan, and etoposide are given intravenously (into a vein), 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.

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 taken. These side effects may include:

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

These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished. Some drugs may 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.

For more general information about chemotherapy, please see the “Chemotherapy” section of our website, or our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 10/21/2013
Last Revised: 02/20/2014