Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell Overview

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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 drugs that are injected into a vein or given by mouth. These drugs travel through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. Unlike chemo that is put on the skin, systemic chemo can attack cancers that have spread to lymph nodes and other organs. They can often slow the spread of these cancers and help relieve symptoms. In some cases, they may shrink tumors enough so that other treatments such as surgery or radiation can be used.

Chemo drugs attack cells that divide fast. This is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body divide fast, too. 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
  • Higher chance of infection (from too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from too few blood platelets)
  • Feeling very tired all the time, called fatigue (from too few red blood cells)

These side effects are usually short-term and go away once treatment is finished. Some drugs may have side effects that are not listed above.

Be sure to talk with your doctor or nurse about any side effects you have because there are often ways to help. For instance, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. To learn more about chemo, see our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Last Medical Review: 02/24/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2014