Skin Cancer Treatments

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on October 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on October 13, 2014

Skin Cancer Treatments and Drugs

The three primary types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. In addition to surgery, there are several other treatment options. It’s crucial to catch skin cancer in the early stages. Long-term survival can depend on early treatment.


Precancerous actinic keratoses and some small, early skin cancers can be treated through cryotherapy. The procedure involves freezing the cancerous cells with liquid nitrogen. The dead cells simply slough off after the tissue thaws.


There are several different types of surgery to remove skin cancer. The types of procedures include:


How much tissue is cut out (excised) depends on the type of cancer and if it has spread to the surrounding area. Sometimes the biopsy will remove all the cancer. If cancer remains, additional surgery will remove what’s still accessible.

Mohs Surgery

This surgery cuts away cancerous tissue and transfers it to a microscope slide. The tissue is checked for cancer cells. The cutting and examination continues until the area is free of cancer. This technique saves the greatest amount of healthy tissue and has the highest cure rate

Curettage and Electrodesiccation

In this process, the cancerous tissue is scraped away and then electricity is used to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy involves aiming charged particle beams directly at the tumor. This therapy may be used alone or in conjunction with surgery to kill any remaining cells. It may also be used in advanced cases to shrink tumors and make the patient more comfortable.


Chemotherapy uses oral, topical, and intravenous drugs to kill cancer cells. This therapy can have some unpleasant side effects. It can kill healthy cells along with the cancer cells.

Biological Therapy

Interferon is a protein naturally produced by the body that helps the immune system fight diseases, including melanoma. Interferon may also halt the growth and spread of cancerous cells. It’s given intravenously.

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)

This therapy used a photosensitizing drug (which makes cancer cells sensitive to light) that kills the cancerous cells using a laser light. PTD will leave your skin very photosensitive. After the therapy, you must avoid exposing the skin to sunlight for a minimum of six weeks.

Drug Treatments

Some topical creams used to treat precancerous lesions (actinic keratosis) and surface basal cell carcinomas. These include five-percent 5-fluorouracil (Efudex, Carac, Fluoroplex, 5-FU) and five-percent imiquimod (Aldara). Even though not specifically designed to treat superficial squamous cell carcinomas, they are sometimes used to good effect.

Other skin cancer drugs include:

  • Ipilimumab (Yervoy) – Approved in 2011 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this drug is for treating late-stage melanoma. Ipilimumab helps the body’s immune system target and attack the melanoma cells. It is given intravenously (IV).
  • Vismodegiv (Erivedge) was FDA-approved in early 2012. This drug is designed to treat basal cell carcinoma that has spread for those who cannot tolerate other treatments such as radiation or surgery. This is an oral medication. Pregnant women cannot take this drug due to a risk of severe birth defects. Anyone having taken this drug should not donate blood.
  • Aldesleukin (Proleukin) is for treating melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body. The most common side effects include decreased blood cells, stomach upset, weakness, dry skin, and headache.
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