Skin Cancer Explained

Topical skin cancer cream: Non-surgical ways to treat skin cancer

Some skin cancers can be treated with topical creams and ointments instead of being surgically removed.
MoleMap Team
November 17, 2023
5 minutes

Many peo­ple think that sur­gi­cal options are the only way to treat and remove skin can­cers, but that’s not always the case. Some super­fi­cial non-melanoma skin can­cers can be treat­ed with top­i­cal skin can­cer treatments.

Accord­ing to the Can­cer Coun­cil, around two in three Aus­tralians will be diag­nosed with skin can­cer before the age of 70. Non-melanoma skin can­cers, such as basal cell car­ci­no­mas (BCC) and squa­mous cell car­ci­no­mas (SCC), are the most com­mon form of can­cer diag­nosed. Each year, over one mil­lion skin can­cer treat­ments are giv­en for non-melanoma skin can­cer. Among these treat­ments are top­i­cal skin can­cer creams.

Top­i­cal skin can­cer treat­ments usu­al­ly come in the form of creams, oint­ments or gels and are applied direct­ly to the sur­face of the skin. These creams con­tain either chemother­a­py or immunother­a­py drugs and must only be used on the spe­cif­ic area requir­ing treat­ment. As such, they can only be pre­scribed by a doc­tor and admin­is­tered under their supervision.

Top­i­cal skin can­cer creams are typ­i­cal­ly used for the treat­ment of super­fi­cial non-melanoma skin can­cer, like super­fi­cial BCC or SCC in-situ (also known as Bowen’s dis­ease). Super­fi­cial skin can­cers occur when only the cells on the sur­face of the top lay­er of the skin are affect­ed. Most super­fi­cial skin can­cers are not con­sid­ered life-threat­en­ing. But it’s still very impor­tant that they are cor­rect­ly diag­nosed by a der­ma­tol­o­gist and treat­ed ear­ly for the best outcome.

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What are the top­i­cal treat­ments for skin cancer?

If your doc­tor or der­ma­tol­o­gist deter­mines that a top­i­cal skin can­cer treat­ment is the best course of action, they will either pre­scribe a top­i­cal chemother­a­py cream or top­i­cal immunother­a­py cream. Learn more about each of these top­i­cal skin can­cer treat­ments below.

Top­i­cal chemother­a­py cream for skin cancer

A top­i­cal chemother­a­py cream called 5‑fluorouracil (5‑FU) is often used for the treat­ment of sunspots, as well as SCC in-situ or Bowen’s dis­ease and super­fi­cial BCC.

How does this top­i­cal treat­ment work?
Flu­o­rouracil is among a group of chemother­a­py drugs known as anti-metabo­lites. Anti-metabo­lites stop can­cer cells from mak­ing and repair­ing DNA, which is how skin can­cer cells grow and mul­ti­ply. 5‑FU chemother­a­py cream destroys the fast-grow­ing cells in the skin, such as the abnor­mal cells in BCC.

How is top­i­cal chemother­a­py cream used?
Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, patients will apply this top­i­cal chemother­a­py cream to the spe­cif­ic skin can­cer spots on their skin twice a day for around 4 weeks. How­ev­er, it may need to be used for a longer peri­od in some cas­es. Your pre­scrib­ing doc­tor or der­ma­tol­o­gist will give you exact guid­ance on how to apply 5‑FU cream, includ­ing how much and how often, depend­ing on your unique case.

What are the side effects of top­i­cal chemother­a­py creams?
When using a top­i­cal chemother­a­py cream like 5‑FU, your skin can become red, irri­tat­ed and sore, and it may crack, peel or blis­ter. These uncom­fort­able effects will usu­al­ly remain for the dura­tion of your treat­ment and sub­side a few weeks after you stop using the cream.

5‑FU cream will also make your skin high­ly sen­si­tive to UV radi­a­tion, which means you’ll need to avoid sun expo­sure dur­ing treatment.

Top­i­cal immunother­a­py cream for skin cancer

A top­i­cal immunother­a­py cream called imiquimod may also be used for the treat­ment of super­fi­cial BCC and SCC in-situ.

How does this top­i­cal treat­ment work?
Imiquimod immunother­a­py cream works by alert­ing your body’s immune sys­tem to the skin can­cer cells and trig­ger­ing it to kill them. It essen­tial­ly helps to jump-start the nat­ur­al immune defences in the skin to destroy the abnor­mal cells of the BCC or SCC.

How is top­i­cal immunother­a­py cream used?
For the treat­ment of super­fi­cial BCCs, top­i­cal immunother­a­py cream is usu­al­ly applied to the affect­ed area on the skin for 5 days a week over 6 weeks. How­ev­er, your doc­tor or der­ma­tol­o­gist will advise you on how much and how often to apply the cream, depend­ing on the type of super­fi­cial skin can­cer you are being treat­ed for.

What are the side effects of top­i­cal immunother­a­py creams?
A few days after using imiquimod immunother­a­py cream, you may notice your skin becom­ing red, sore and sen­si­tive when touched. Some peo­ple also expe­ri­ence itch­ing and burn­ing in the area where the cream is used. Your skin will like­ly crack, peel and scab over before healing.

Top­i­cal immunother­a­py for skin can­cer may also cause some more seri­ous side effects, such as fever, mus­cle and joint aches, headaches or a rash. If you expe­ri­ence any of these symp­toms, stop using the immunother­a­py cream and con­sult with your doc­tor immediately.

Impor­tant things to remem­ber about top­i­cal skin can­cer treatments

Although they may be less inva­sive than sur­gi­cal treat­ments, top­i­cal skin can­cer treat­ments must still be used with a high lev­el of care and precaution.

When using top­i­cal skin can­cer creams, you should:

  • Only apply to the spe­cif­ic area your doc­tor or der­ma­tol­o­gist has told you to treat
  • Always use clean, dry hands, dis­pos­able sur­gi­cal gloves or a cot­ton bud to apply the cream and wash your hands thor­ough­ly after application
  • Avoid touch­ing your eyes, nose or mouth with the cream (if your treat­ment involves these areas, your doc­tor will advise you on the appro­pri­ate application)
  • Avoid cov­er­ing the treat­ment area after the cream is applied as this can inten­si­fy the strength of the cream and may increase the risk of side effects or toxicity
  • Nev­er self-med­icate or use left­over cream on skin spots that haven’t been prop­er­ly exam­ined or diag­nosed by your doc­tor or dermatologist

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Get­ting start­ed with top­i­cal skin can­cer treatments

Like all skin can­cer treat­ments, top­i­cal treat­ments begin with prop­er exam­i­na­tion by a melanog­ra­ph­er at a skin can­cer clin­ic and diag­no­sis by a der­ma­tol­o­gist or doc­tor. If a skin spot is iden­ti­fied as skin can­cer, the treat­ing doc­tor will deter­mine whether top­i­cal treat­ment is suit­able, depend­ing on the size, loca­tion and type of skin cancer.

Early detection is absolutely crucial for topical skin cancer treatments, as more developed skin cancers will likely require more invasive surgical procedures for removal. The best way to detect superficial skin cancers early enough for topical treatment is to undergo regular skin check or mole check. At MoleMap, we offer a range of skin cancer services to help you keep your skin in check, including our comprehensive Full Body MoleMap.

Won­der­ing if you’re at risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cer? Take our quick Risk Quiz now for a per­son­al assess­ment of your skin can­cer risk.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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