Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell Overview

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Treating Skin Cancer - Basal and Squamous Cell TOPICS

Other forms of local treatment for basal and squamous cell skin cancers

Other methods can be used to treat basal and squamous cell skin cancers that have not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. Some of these treatments are described as types of “surgery” since they destroy tissue. But these methods don’t involve cutting into the skin.


In this treatment, very cold liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and kill cancer cells. After the dead area of skin thaws it may swell, blister, and crust over. The wound may take a month or 2 to heal and will leave a scar. The treated area may have less color after treatment.

This treatment is used most often for pre-cancers and for small basal cell and squamous cell cancers.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

This treatment involves putting a special kind of drug right on the skin cancer. It collects in the cancer cells over the course of many hours or days and makes them sensitive to certain types of light. A special light source is then focused on the cancer. It “turns on” the drug so it kills the cells.

PDT can cause redness and swelling on the skin where it is used. Another possible side effect is that it can make a person’s skin very sensitive to sunlight for a while, so patients may need to be careful to avoid sunlight so they don’t get bad burns.

PDT is used mainly to treat actinic keratoses. To find out more about this treatment, see our document Photodynamic Therapy.

Topical chemotherapy

Chemotherapy (“chemo”) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Topical chemo means that a drug is put right on the skin (usually in a cream or ointment) rather than being given by mouth or put into a vein. Depending on the drug, it may be used once or twice a day for anywhere from a few days to a few months.

When put on the skin, the drug reaches cancer cells near the skin surface. But it does not reach cancer cells that have grown deep into the skin or spread to other organs. For this reason, this kind of treatment is most often used only for very early skin cancers or for pre-cancers like actinic keratosis.

This treatment can cause the treated skin to be red and tender for up to a few weeks, which can be quite bothersome for some people.

Immune response modifiers

Certain drugs can boost the body’s immune system response to the cancer, causing the cancer to shrink or go away.

Creams like imiquimod (Zyclara) can be applied to actinic keratoses and some very early basal cell cancers. They are most often applied at least a few times a week for several weeks, although schedules can vary. Like other topical gels, they can cause severe skin reactions in some people. They can also cause flu-like symptoms.

Interferon is a man-made version of an immune system protein. It can be injected right into the tumor to boost the body’s immune response to fight it. Interferon may be used when surgery is not possible, but it may not work as well as other treatments.

Laser surgery

This newer treatment uses a beam of laser light to kill cancer cells. It’s sometimes used for actinic keratosis and very early basal and squamous cell cancers. It’s not yet known whether laser surgery works as well as standard methods of treatment, and it is not widely used.

Chemical peeling

In this approach, the doctor applies a small amount of trichloracetic acid (TCA) or a chemical like it to the skin tumor, killing the tumor cells over the course of several days. This approach is sometimes used to treat actinic keratosis.

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