Skin cancer is when the cells of your skin grow abnormally. It often occurs on areas of skin that are frequently exposed to sunlight. Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers.

There are several different types of skin cancer:

  • Nonmelanoma skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, are most common. They develop locally and rarely spread to other parts of your body.
  • Melanoma is a more rare and serious type of skin cancer. It’s more likely to invade surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of your body. An early diagnosis and treatment are very important for melanoma.

If you’re diagnosed with skin cancer, your treatment will depend on the type of skin cancer, the stage of the cancer, and your overall health. Read on to find out more about the different types of treatment for skin cancer.

How it works

Your doctor will use a scalpel to remove the tumor as well as the area of tissue that surrounds it. The site will then be closed with stitches. The tissue sample will be sent to a lab for analysis. Learn more about surgical excision here.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

Side effects

A second procedure may be necessary if cancer cells are still present following sample analysis. If a very large area of skin is removed, a graft or reconstructive surgery may be necessary.

How it works

Your doctor will use a scalpel or other surgical tool to remove the tumor in thin layers. This tissue layer is then thoroughly evaluated under a microscope.

If tumor cells are still present, the process is repeated. Your doctor will continue to remove small layers of tissue until the last layer removed is cancer-free when viewed under a microscope.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

Side effects

Mohs micrographic surgery is advantageous over regular excision surgery because it can save a greater amount of normal tissue. Depending on the location of the tumor, some reconstructive surgery may still be required.

How it works

For this treatment, a sharp-tipped instrument called a curette is used in combination with an electric current. The curette is used to scrape off the tumor or growth. An electric current is then applied to the site, generating heat to destroy remaining tumor cells and limit any bleeding.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma

Side effects

This procedure is typically repeated several times to be sure that any remaining cancer cells have been destroyed. Due to the nature of a treatment, it can often leave a scar.

How it works

Your doctor will destroy your tumor using liquid nitrogen. The tumor will become crusty and scabby after treatment and will eventually fall off. Sometimes the freezing procedure is repeated several times at the same appointment in order to make sure all cancer cells are destroyed. This procedure is also called cryosurgery.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma

Side effects

The procedure itself involves no bleeding or cutting, but the site of the treatment may blister or swell afterwards. In some cases, you may have a scar. Freezing is generally less effective than other surgical treatments and is often used for precancerous growths.

How it works

During photodynamic therapy (PDT), your doctor will apply a light-reactive chemical to cancerous lesions. Cancer cells and precancerous cells will take up the chemical. You’ll then be exposed to a strong light. The cancer cells and precancerous cells that have taken up the chemical will be killed while healthy cells will survive.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma

Side effects

Following treatment, you may experience redness and swelling at the site. Additionally, you should try to avoid indoor and outdoor light after treatment since the area will still be sensitive.

How it works

In chemotherapy, anticancer drugs are injected intravenously (IV). They then travel through your bloodstream to attack cancer cells. Because of this, chemotherapy can be effective at treating cancer that has spread to other parts of your body.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma (rarely)
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

Side effects

Chemotherapy can have side effects, such as:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • tiredness or fatigue
  • hair loss
  • an increased risk of infection

Typically, these side effects will go away when your chemotherapy treatments have finished.

How it works

Topical skin cancer medications block the ability of cancer cells to grow and divide. In this treatment, you rub a cream or gel medication onto your tumor several times per week for a specified amount of time. Examples of topical medications are imiquimod and 5-fluorouracil. These are considered noninvasive treatments for skin cancer.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma

Side effects

Side effects from topical medications for skin cancer can include redness and swelling. Additionally, since none of the tumor tissue is removed for biopsy, there is no sure way to tell how much of the cancer has been destroyed.

How it works

During radiation therapy, your doctor will aim high-energy beams or particles at your tumor in order to destroy the cancer cells. The process is quite similar to getting an X-ray, but the radiation used is stronger.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

Side effects

Radiation therapy can be used when surgery isn’t an option. It can lead to side effects such as:

  • nausea
  • fatigue or tiredness
  • skin problems
  • hair loss

How it works

Immunotherapy utilizes biological materials to encourage your body’s immune system to fight your cancer.

For example, the drug nivolumab (Opdivo) targets a protein called PD-1 that is located on a specific type of immune cell. PD-1 normally prevents these cells from attacking cancer cells in your body. However, when nivolumab binds to and blocks PD-1, these cells are no longer inhibited and are free to attack cancer cells. Learn more about immunotherapy for skin cancer.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • melanoma

Side effects

Many immunotherapy drugs can have significant negative side effects. Your doctor will have to decide if the benefit of immunotherapy treatment outweighs these negative side effects.

How it works

This treatment targets specific genes or proteins of cancerous cells. Because of this, targeted therapy can work to destroy cancer cells while avoiding damaging healthy cells.

An example of targeted therapy is BRAF inhibitors. BRAF is a gene that is mutated in melanoma cells. Cells with this mutation produce a slightly different BRAF protein than normal cells. This slightly altered protein is what the BRAF inhibitor targets.

What type of skin cancer is it used for?

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

Side effects

Targeted therapy can have some side effects such as:

  • skin rash
  • nausea
  • development of less-aggressive skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma

Be sure to follow the guidelines below to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer:

  • Try to stay in the shade during the hottest hours of the day. The sun is typically the strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
  • Use sunscreen that has an SPF of 15 or higher as well as UVA and UVB protection. Be sure to reapply every two hours.
  • Avoid using indoor tanning beds. Consider using a self-tanning product instead.
  • Wear clothing that protects your skin. This includes clothing that covers most of your arms and legs, hats with a wide brim, and sunglasses that wrap around.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Snow, water, and sand can all reflect light from the sun. This can increase your chance of getting a sunburn.
  • Check your skin regularly. If you see a suspicious-looking mole or mark, make an appointment with your dermatologist. Also, make a yearly appointment with your dermatologist for a skin exam.

The prognosis for skin cancer can vary depending on the type of the skin cancer, the stage of the skin cancer, and your overall health. Your doctor will work with you to generate a treatment plan that is appropriate for the type and severity of your skin cancer.

When identified and treated early, the prognosis for many skin cancers is very good.

Because of this, it’s very important make a yearly appointment with your dermatologist for a skin exam. Additionally, if you find a suspicious spot or mole on your body, you should make an appointment with your dermatologist to have them look at it.