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Chemotherapy for Skin Cancer

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.

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  • Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

    • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
    • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
    • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your healthcare provider tells you.
    • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
    • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
    • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
    • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
    • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
    • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
    • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.
  • Like other kinds of seizures, absence seizures are caused by abnormal activity in a person’s brain. Doctors often don’t know why this happens. Most absence seizures are less than 15 seconds long. It’s rare for an absence seizure to last longer than 15 minutes. They can happen suddenly without any warning signs.

  • You may have absence seizures repeatedly for years before heading to the doctor for a diagnosis. You may have “staring spells” without thinking of them as a medical problem or a seizure.

    An EEG is a test most often used to diagnose absence seizures. This test records the brain’s electrical activity and spots any abnormalities that could indicate an absence seizure.

    These tests also can help to diagnose absence seizures or rule out other conditions:

    • Blood tests
    • Tests of the kidneys and liver
    • CT or MRI scans
    • Spinal tap to test the cerebrospinal fluid 

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