Topical treatments for skin cancer
Some skin spots and 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.
You should use these treatments only on the specific spots or areas that your doctor has asked you to treat. Don’t use leftover cream to treat new 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.
It is used to treat sunspots, superficial BCCs and squamous cell carcinoma in situ (Bowen’s disease).
You apply imiquimod directly to the affected area every night, usually five days a week for six weeks.
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.
What to expect after: 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.
This cream is a type of chemotherapy drug. It is used to treat superficial BCCs, sunspots and, sometimes, squamous cell carcinoma 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, you will be more sensitive to UV radiation and 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.
This gel is applied to the affected sunspots once a day for two to three days.
What to expect after: You may experience skin reddening, flaking or scaling, mild swelling, crusting or scabbing, and blisters. These side effects should disappear within a couple of weeks of treatment finishing.
Prof Diona Damian, Dermatologist, The University of Sydney at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and Associate, Melanoma Institute of Australia, NSW; Dr Annie Ho, Radiation Oncologist, Genesis Care, Macquarie University, St Vincent’s and Mater Hospitals, NSW; Rebecca Johnson, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Melanoma Institute of Australia, NSW; Shannon Jones, SunSmart Health Professionals Coordinator, Cancer Council Victoria; Liz King, Skin Cancer Prevention Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Roslyn McCulloch, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Paige Preston, Policy Advisor, Cancer Prevention, Health and Wellbeing, Cancer Council Queensland; Dr Michael Wagels, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.