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Chemotherapy for skin cancer

Chemotherapy means the use of anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. You can have chemotherapy as a cream or through a drip into a vein to treat your skin cancer.

Chemotherapy cream

The chemotherapy drug fluorouracil (5FU) can be applied to the skin cancer in a cream. This is called topical chemotherapy. Very little of the drug is absorbed into the body. This treatment is only used for cancers affecting the top layer of skin.

You put the chemotherapy cream on yourself, at home. Usually you have to apply it twice a day. Treatment usually lasts for a few weeks. The cream may make the skin red, sore and inflamed. These effects should wear off within 2 weeks after your treatment has ended.

Chemotherapy into a vein

Chemotherapy can be given into a vein to treat squamous cell cancer that has spread to other parts of your body. This is still experimental treatment. You have the drugs for a few days. Then you have three or four weeks without drugs, then another few days of drugs. This cycle is usually repeated six or more times.

Chemotherapy does have side effects. The side effects you get depend on which drugs you have.
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating skin cancer section.

 

 

What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy means using anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Different chemotherapy drugs work in different ways. But mainly they kill the cancer cell by disrupting the workings of the cell. Chemotherapy drugs given through a drip circulate in the bloodstream around your body. To treat skin cancers, you may have chemotherapy

  • As topical treatment  ̶̶  as a cream put directly onto your skin cancer
  • Through a drip into a vein  ̶̶  to treat squamous cell skin cancer that has spread
 

Chemotherapy cream

The chemotherapy drug fluorouracil (5FU) comes in a cream called Efudix that you spread on the skin. This is called topical chemotherapy. With topical chemotherapy, very little of the drug is absorbed into the body. It treats the cells where it is applied. So this treatment is only used for cancers affecting the top layer of skin (superficial skin cancers). It is most often used for actinic keratosis and Bowen's disease, and sometimes thin basal cell skin cancers.

You put the chemotherapy cream on yourself while at home. Staff at the hospital will tell you how to do this. Usually you have to apply the cream twice a day. Your doctor or specialist nurse will ask you to spread the cream all over the affected area. It will treat any abnormal cells in that area. You may be given waterproof dressings to put over the cream to keep it in place. Sometimes, depending on where the skin cancer is, a dressing may not be suitable.

Treatment usually lasts for a few weeks. The cream will make the skin red, sore and inflamed. Some people react more than others. If necessary, your doctor or specialist nurse can give you another cream containing steroids to help take away the swelling. The side effects should wear off within 2 weeks of your treatment finishing.

 

Chemotherapy into a vein

You can have chemotherapy into a vein (intravenously) to treat squamous cell cancer that has spread to other parts of your body. This is still experimental treatment. Your doctor may suggest this treatment to try to slow the cancer down and to try to relieve symptoms that the cancer may be causing.

You may have treatment with one drug or a combination of drugs. You will have your injections or tablets for a few days. Then you have 3 or 4 weeks without any drugs. Then another few days of drugs. This cycle is usually repeated 6 or more times to make up a complete course of chemotherapy.

 

Side effects of chemotherapy into a vein

Chemotherapy does have side effects. The side effects you get depend on

  • Which drugs you have
  • How much of each drug you have
  • How you individually react to the drugs

Chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects in different people. Some people react more than others. So we can't tell you exactly what will happen to you. Drugs most commonly used for squamous cell skin cancer include

Click on the drug names above for information about the specific side effects of each of these drugs.

 

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements may interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful. It is very important to let your doctors know if you take any supplements. Or if you are prescribed them by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment. There is information about the safety of herbal, vitamin and diet supplements in the complementary therapies section.

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. If you are taking or thinking of taking these supplements talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

 

More information on chemotherapy

For more about chemotherapy generally, look at the main chemotherapy section. It explains the treatment in more detail including

If you would like more information about chemotherapy, contact our cancer information nurses. They would be happy to help.

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Updated: 11 September 2014