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What to Know About Chemotherapy for Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. If chemotherapy is needed for nonmelanoma skin cancer, you or your doctor usually apply it as a cream right onto the skin at least several times per week for a few weeks. This is called topical chemotherapy. 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and imiquimod can be used. Imiquimod stimulates the immune system and is approved for basal cell cancer. These drugs are used when the cancers are in the top layers of the skin.

Photo of intravenous drug bag

Intravenous chemotherapy may be used for squamous cell cancer of the skin after it spreads. Your doctor or nurse will explain what your treatment plan will be, what you can expect, and how to use these drugs. The length of each treatment period differs depending on the type of medication used.

Potential side effects from chemotherapy

Chemotherapy affects normal cells as well as cancer cells. For most nonmelanoma skin cancers, you or your doctor will usually apply chemotherapy only at the site of the growth. Your skin may be red, itchy, and sore while the cream is being used. This irritation will go away after treatment is done. In some cases, the skin can become infected. Your doctor can treat the infection with topical antibiotic cream. If your skin becomes inflamed and painful during treatment, see your doctor.

Intravenous chemotherapy can affect cells in many parts of the body. The side effects depend on the drugs used, but more common side effects can include:

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Mouth sores

  • Diarrhea

  • Hair loss

  • Feeling weak or tired

  • Increased risk of bleeding and infections (because of low blood cell counts) 

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