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Methods other than surgery 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.

  • Cryosurgery (cryotherapy): Very cold liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and kill cancer cells. This treatment is used most often for pre-cancers and for small basal cell and squamous cell cancers.
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): A drug that makes the cancer cells sensitive to certain types of light is put right on the skin cancer. A special light source is then focused on the cancer. It “turns on” the drug so it kills the cancer cells. PDT is used mainly to treat actinic keratoses. To learn more about this treatment, see 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. This kind of treatment is most often used only for very early skin cancers or for pre-cancers like actinic keratosis.
  • Immune response modifiers: Certain drugs can be put on skin cancers or pre-cancers as a cream or injected into tumors to boost the body’s immune system response to the cancer, causing the cancer to shrink or go away.
  • Laser surgery: A beam of laser light is used to kill cancer cells. This is sometimes used for actinic keratosis and very early basal and squamous cell cancers. This treatment is not widely used.
  • Chemical peeling: A small amount of a chemical is applied to destroy the skin tumor over the course of several days. This approach is sometimes used to treat actinic keratosis.

Last Medical Review: 05/06/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016