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Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer: Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a treatment for cancer that is done with medicine. It attacks cells that divide quickly, such as cancer cells.

How chemotherapy is used

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. The most common medicines used are:

  • 5-fluorouracil (5-FU)

  • Imiquimod (stimulates the immune system to treat basal cell cancer)

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

Your treatment plan

Your doctor or nurse will explain what your treatment plan will be, what you can expect, and how to use your medicine. The length of each treatment period differs depending on the type of medicine used.

Chemotherapy side effects

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 doctor.

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 health care team

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, ask your health care team how they work, and what side effects they might have. Keep a written diary of your treatment schedule and any signs or symptoms you have.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Last Review Date: 1/20/2015
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.