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Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer - What Treatments You Can Expect


Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common cancers of the skin. Two types of non-melanoma skin cancers are most prevalent: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Basal cell carcinoma: These comprise 70 to 80 percent of the cancers in men and 90 percent of the cancers in women. These cancers begin in the lowest layer of the skin, which is called the basal cell layer. These types of cancers usually begin on areas of the body that are exposed to sunlight, such as the head and neck. It used to be more common for middle-aged and older people to have this kind of cancer, but it's seen increasingly in younger people now too.

Basal cell carcinoma grows slowly. It rarely spreads to the lymph nodes or to parts of the body that are far from its original site. But if it's not treated, it can spread to nearby areas, such as the bone or under the skin. It's also very common for basal cell carcinoma to come back, often in the same place. In fact, about 35 percent to 50 percent of the people who have this type of cancer experience a recurrence within five years.

Squamous cell carcinoma: These comprise about 10 to 30 percent of all skin cancers, and are most likely to appear on the face, ear, neck and back of the hand-areas that receive more sun exposure. These cancers also sometimes develop in scars or skin ulcers.

Squamous cell carcinoma is more aggressive than basal cell. It's more likely to spread to lymph nodes or organs.

Treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer

Your treatment for skin cancer is based on the following factors:
  • The stage of the cancer (whether it has spread deeper into the skin or to other places in the body)
  • The type of skin cancer it is
  • The size and location of the tumor
  • Your overall health

    Treatment can include:

    Mohs micrographic surgery: The surgeon cuts the tumor from the skin in layers, checking each layer for cancer cells. When no more cancer cells are seen, the surgeon stops the removal of layers. This type of surgery is often used for cancers on the face.

    Simple excision: The surgeon cuts the tumor from the skin, including some of the normal skin that surrounds it.

    Shave excision: Using a small blade, the surgeon shaves the abnormal area from the surface of the skin.

    Electrodessication and curettage: The surgeon uses a sharp, spoon-shaped tool to cut the tumor from the skin, and then treats the area with an electric current to stop the bleeding and to kill any cancer cells that may remain.

    Cryosurgery: The surgeon freezes and destroys abnormal tissue. This is sometimes used for smaller tumors, but not for larger ones and generally not on the nose, ears eyelids, scalp or legs.

    Laser surgery: The surgeon uses a narrow beam of intense light to remove any abnormalities.

    Dermabrasion: A rotating wheel on the surface of the skin removes skin cells.

    Chemotherapy: For nonmelanoma skin cancer, chemotherapy is usually applied to the skin in a cream or lotion.

    Radiation therapy: This is often the preferred choice for skin cancers that are in areas that make surgery difficult, such as the eyelids, nose or ears.

    Regular follow-up extremely important

    After your nonmelanoma skin cancer treatments are over, it's still important to get routine checks to make sure the cancer hasn't returned. As we mentioned above, skin cancers often do return, in the same location they were before. Work closely with your doctor to create a follow-up plan that gives you the best chance at catching any new cancers early, so that your treatment and recovery are as easy on you as possible.

    The American Cancer Society; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The National Cancer Institute
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