Chemotherapy And Radiation

Skin cancer lesions are often removed through surgical procedures. However, in some cases, other methods of treatment may be more successful. Chemotherapy and radiation are two skin cancer treatment methods used in cases that are difficult to treat surgically.

Topical Chemotherapy

Topical chemotherapy is the most common type of chemotherapy administration for skin cancer. These drugs kill rapidly dividing skin cancer cells, and are often used on areas where surgery is not feasible, or on lesions are too large to remove surgically. A common topical chemotherapy agent is 5-fluorouracil (5FU).

The chemotherapy cream or lotion can be applied at home, usually daily. Once the skin becomes inflamed, the treatment is stopped (according to doctor’s orders) and the lesion is allowed to heal. During the treatment and healing process, the area should be protected from the sun.

Systemic Chemotherapy

In advanced stages of skin cancer, surgically removing all cancerous cells may be difficult. Stage III skin cancer involves migration of cancer cells to the lymph nodes (part of the body’s immune system). Stage IV involves metastasis, or spreading of cancer to distant organs, such as the lungs or brain. In both cases, cancer cells are no longer localized to a single skin lesion.

Systemic chemotherapy is taken orally or injected, allowing the drugs to reach the whole body. Like topical chemotherapy, it attacks rapidly dividing abnormal cells. However, other fast-dividing cells, such as hair cells, are also affected by chemotherapy; this leads to the hair loss that is a hallmark side effect of systemic chemotherapy.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation treatment, also called radiation therapy or radiotherapy, uses high-energy rays, such as x-rays, to attack cancer cells. Radiation damages the DNA of cancer cells, impairing their ability to divide and multiply. Cancer cells are killed, and tumors can no longer grow. Radiation can come from one of two sources:

  • External: A machine emits radiation into the skin, focusing on the affected area; surrounding skin is protected by a shield.
  • Internal: A radiation source, such as a seed or wire, is inserted into the affected skin, emitting radiation into the tumor or lesion.

Radiation is relatively uncommon in treating skin cancer. However, it can be effective on areas of skin where surgery would be difficult, impossible or disfiguring (such as the eyelids). Radiation may also be used for recurrent cases of skin cancer, or those that respond poorly to another type of treatment.


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