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Medicines are rarely used to treat nonmelanoma skin cancer. Surgery is the most common and the most effective treatment. But when surgery is not possible, your doctor may suggest medicines. Medicines may also be used when a skin cancer is too large for surgery or when new skin cancers keep appearing.

Medicine choices

Medicines that may be used to treat basal cell carcinoma include:

  • Fluorouracil (5-FU). This cream or lotion is used to treat carcinomas that are only in the top layer of skin (superficial).
  • Imiquimod (Aldara). Imiquimod is used to treat superficial basal cell cancer on the skin of the body, neck, arms, or legs, but it is not approved for treating the face.
  • Vismodegib pills may be used if surgery and radiation haven't worked and if the basal cell carcinoma has spread to other parts of the body.

Medicines that may be used to treat squamous cell carcinoma include:

  • Fluorouracil (5-FU). This cream or lotion is used to treat superficial carcinomas.
  • Tretinoin (Retin-A) cream. Along with this cream, you may be given isotretinoin pills.
  • Interferon may be given to help your immune system fight the cancer. This is given by injection (shot).

People treated with medicines will need to have regular follow-up visits with their doctors to make sure the skin cancer is gone.

Chemotherapy may be used to destroy cancer cells in the small number of people who have basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma that has spread (metastasized) to other organs in the body, though metastasis is rare.

What to think about

Medicines such as 5-FU and imiquimod may cause your skin to be sore. Your skin may turn red, swell, itch, or break out in a rash. Your skin may also be sensitive to sunlight. If your skin turns too red or raw, your doctor may stop the treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 14, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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