Topical treatments for skin cancer
Some skin spots and superficial skin cancers can be treated with creams or gels that you apply to the skin. These are called topical treatments. They may contain immunotherapy or chemotherapy drugs, and are prescribed by a doctor.
Only use these treatments on the specific spots or areas that your doctor has asked you to treat. Don’t use leftover cream on spots that have not been assessed by your doctor.
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A cream called imiquimod is a type of immunotherapy that causes the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells.
Imiquimod is used to treat sunspots and superficial basal cell carcinomas (BCCs). Your doctor will explain how to apply the cream and how often. For superficial BCCs, the cream is commonly applied directly to the affected area at night, usually five days a week for six weeks.
What to expect after
Within days of starting imiquimod, the treated skin may become red, sore and tender to touch. The skin may peel and scab over before it gets better. Some people have pain or itching in the affected area, fever, achy joints, headache and a rash.
If you experience any of these more serious side effects, stop using the cream and see your doctor immediately.
A cream called 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) is a type of chemotherapy drug. It is used to treat sunspots and, sometimes, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in situ (Bowen’s disease).
5-FU works best on the face and scalp. Your GP or dermatologist will explain how to apply the cream and how often. Many people use it twice a day for 2–3 weeks. It may need to be used for longer for some skin cancers.
While using the cream, your skin will be more sensitive to UV radiation and you will need to stay out of the sun.
What to expect after
The treated skin may become red, blister, peel and crack, and feel uncomfortable. These effects will usually settle within a few weeks of treatment finishing.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
A/Prof Stephen Shumack, Dermatologist, Royal North Shore Hospital and The University of Sydney, NSW; Dr Margaret Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Head of Radiation Oncology, Skin and Melanoma, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; John Clements, Consumer; Aoife Conway, Skin Lead and Radiation Oncology Nurse, GenesisCare, Mater Hospital, NSW; Sandra Donaldson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kath Lockier, Consumer; Dr Isabel Gonzalez Matheus, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Principal House Officer, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; A/Prof Andrew Miller, Dermatologist, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Dr Helena Rosengren, Chair Research Committee, Skin Cancer College of Australasia, and Medical Director, Skin Repair Skin Cancer Clinic, QLD; Dr Michael Wagels, Staff Specialist Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Princess Alexandra Hospital and Surgical Treatment and Rehabilitation Service, and Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland, QLD; David Woods, Consumer.
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