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Chemotherapy is a type of anti cancer drug treatment. It uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Different chemotherapy drugs work in different ways. They mainly kill cancer cells by disrupting the way they work. To treat skin cancers, you might have chemotherapy:

  • as a cream (topical treatment) directly on to your skin cancer
  • through a drip into a vein, to treat squamous cell skin cancer (SCC) that has spread

Chemotherapy cream (topical)

The chemotherapy drug fluorouracil (5FU) comes in a cream called Efudix. You spread the cream on your skin. This is called topical chemotherapy. It treats the cancer cells where you apply it. Very little of the drug is absorbed into the rest of your body. 

It is only used for cancers affecting the top layer of skin (superficial skin cancers). So you might have it to treat:

  • some thin basal cell skin cancers (BCCs)
  • Bowen's disease (squamous cell carcinoma in situ)
  • actinic keratosis, which might develop into a squamous cell skin cancer

You put the chemotherapy cream on your skin cancer yourself. Hospital staff will show you how to do this so you can do it at home.

Usually you apply the cream once or twice a day for 3 to 4 weeks. Depending on where the skin cancer is, you might have waterproof dressings to put over the cream to keep it in place. 

The cream can make the skin red, sore and inflamed. Some people's skin reacts more than others. To relieve discomfort, your doctor or specialist nurse can give you another cream containing steroids, if needed.

Contact your advice line if you’re worried about the side effects you are experiencing.

Chemotherapy into a vein

You might have chemotherapy into a vein (intravenously) to treat squamous cell cancer (SCC) that has spread to other parts of your body. Your doctor might suggest this treatment to try to:

  • slow the cancer down 
  • relieve your cancer symptoms

You might have treatment with one drug or a combination of drugs.

Side effects of chemotherapy into a vein

Chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects in different people. Some people react more than others. Side effects depend on:

  • which drugs you have
  • how much of each drug you have
  • how you individually react to the drugs

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

Let your doctors know if you take any supplements or if you have been prescribed anything by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

It’s unclear how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. They could be harmful.