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Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.

What is it?

Different chemotherapy drugs work in different ways, but 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 that you spread on the skin. This is called topical chemotherapy, it treats the cells where it is applied. Very little of the drug is absorbed into the 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
  • 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 twice a day all over the affected area. Depending on where the skin cancer is, you might be given waterproof dressings to put over the cream to keep it in place. 

Treatment usually lasts for a few weeks.

The cream can make the skin red, sore and inflamed. Some people's skin reacts more than others. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you another cream containing steroids, if needed. The side effects should wear off within 2 weeks of your treatment finishing.

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 and to try to relieve symptoms the cancer may be causing.

You might have treatment with one drug or a combination of drugs. You usually have treatment for a few weeks and then have a week of no treatment. This is called a cycle of treatment. Your doctor will tell you how many cycles of treatment you need. 

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.

Information and help