Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses anticancer medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines are made to attack and kill cancer cells that grow quickly.

Some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy can also harm those cells. This can cause side effects.

How is chemotherapy given for nonmelanoma skin cancer?

Chemotherapy for nonmelanoma skin cancer is most often applied as a cream or ointment onto the skin. This is called topical chemotherapy. These medicines are only used when the cancers are just in the top layers of the skin. The medicine is applied several times a week for a few weeks.

Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy may be used for squamous cell cancer of the skin after it spreads.

What types of medicines are used to treat nonmelanoma skin cancer?

The most common medicines used are:

  • 5-fluorouracil (5-FU)

  • Imiquimod. This stimulates the immune system to treat basal cell cancer.

What are common side effects of chemotherapy?

Because chemotherapy affects cells that divide quickly, it affects some kinds of normal cells as well as cancer cells.

Possible side effects for topical chemotherapy can include:

  • Red, itchy, and painful skin where the cream or ointment is being used, which goes away after treatment

  • Infection, which can be treated with topical antibiotic cream

If your skin becomes inflamed and painful during treatment, see your healthcare provider.

IV chemotherapy can affect cells in many parts of the body. The side effects depend on the medicines used, but some common side effects include:

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Mouth sores

  • Diarrhea

  • Hair loss

  • Feeling weak or tired

  • Infections from low white blood cell counts

  • Easy bruising or bleeding from low blood platelet counts

Working with your healthcare provider

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, and ask your healthcare team how they work and what side effects they might have.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for and when to call them. For example, chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections.  Make sure you know what number to call with questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?

 It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your healthcare team to make a plan to manage your side effects.