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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 get a reg­u­lar skin can­cer 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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