Nonmelanoma skin cancer: What are the best treatments? (2023)

If you’ve just been diagnosed with nonmelanoma skin cancer, be glad you and your doctor caught it. Most of the time it’s curable, especially when it’s found and treated early. And you have a number of treatment options to choose from, depending on what type it is.

But you need to talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of each one before you decide what is right for you.

Localized Treatments

For precancers, very small skin cancers or those at the top layer of your skin, treatment could be pretty simple. There are a number of methods that don’t require cuts or unnecessary strain to other parts of your body.
Gels and creams.Chemotherapy drugs target and kill cancer cells, while immune response drugs tell your body’s own defenses to attack a certain area. There are several topical forms available of both that you can apply to the affected area of your skin. Depending on which kind you use, your treatment could last from 2 days to 3 months, and cause mild to severe irritation to your skin.
Liquid nitrogen. Your doctor may suggest freezing off the cancerous skin tumor. They might have to do it a couple of times, but it eventually kills the cancerous cells. Your skin will blister and crust up, but once it heals all you’ll be left with is a scar.

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Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are the two most common nonmelanoma skin cancers. Surgery is often used to treat them. These procedures usually take a matter of minutes to an hour and only require local anesthesia.
Excision. Your doctor will use a blade to remove the cancer, as well as some cancer-free skin. This is a quick process that often requires stitches and will leave a scar.
Electrodessication and Curettages. This procedure gets its name from the scoop-shaped tool called the curette. After your doctor removes the cancerous cells, they’ll use an electric needle to probe the skin around the area to kill any leftover cancer cells. You may repeat the process a couple of times during your visit, and you’ll probably end up with a scar.
Mohs surgery. During this surgery, your doctor will remove thin layers of skin from the affected area and review them under a microscope to look for cancerous cells. It usually takes hours because your doctor repeats the procedure, removing a thin layer of skin and putting it under the microscope, until they no longer seeany cancer cells. Mohs is common for cancers found on the face.



If you’re trying to avoid surgery or if your cancer is too large, radiation might be an option. It uses high-energy rays (such as X-rays) or particles (such as photons, electrons, or protons) to kill your cancer cells. You may have radiation after surgery to kill cancer cells that might have been left behind. It’s sometimes recommended as the only treatment for elderly people or those who have health conditions that make it dangerous for them to have surgery. Radiation also might be used instead of surgery if your tumor is very large or in a hard-to-treat area (like your eyelids or the tip of your nose) and the surgery might affect how you look.

To treat skin cancer, external radiation is focused on the cancerous tumor to kill or stop its growth. To help limit some of the side effects, your doctor will likely use a type of radiation called electron beam radiation because it doesn’t go deeper than your skin. The goal is to destroy as much of the cancer as possible without hurting the rest of your body.

Your doctor might also use internal radiation -- putting radioactive materials inside the affected area -- to go with other treatments, especially if your cancer has metastasized, meaning spread to other parts of your body, such as your lymph nodes.

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Most often, the radiation is delivered by a machine. It’s a lot like getting an X-ray -- it doesn’t hurt and is fairly quick. But you may need to have several sessions.

The side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Skin irritation
  • Changes in skin color and texture
  • Hair loss to the treatment site
  • Damage to saliva-making glands and teeth (when treating near those areas)

Nonmelanoma skin cancers treated only with radiation are more likely to come back than ones treated with surgery. And if you have certain other health issues, such as lupus or scleroderma, radiation therapy can sometimes make those conditions worse.

Photodynamic Therapy

Photodynamic therapy (PDT), also called phototherapy, might be an option if you have:

  • Actinic keratosis, a type of precancer
  • Basal cell cancer near the surface of your skin
  • Bowen's disease, also called squamous cell carcinoma in situ


With PDT, your doctor uses a special light along with a drug to kill cancer cells. The drug goes on as a cream that your doctor rubs onto your skin over the cancer.

Then, you need to wait at least 3-6 hours for your skin to absorb the medicine. In some cases, you may need to wait as long as 14-16 hours. When your doctor turns on the light, it kicks the drug into action to destroy the cancer.

You can't get PDT for cancers that go deep into your skin because the light can't reach that far. It's mainly used for cancer that covers a large section of skin or that's clustered in one area.

PDT tends to work just as well as other treatments like surgery and radiation, but there are usually no long-term side effects, and it doesn't leave a scar.

Other Options

Your doctor might suggest other treatments based on the type of skin cancer you have, whether it continues to happen, and your overall health. These could include less common treatments, non-FDA-approved procedures, or even clinical trials. Talk to your doctor about your specific goals and concerns.

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After Treatment

Once your treatment is complete and the affected area is healed, you need to protect your skin. Many of these treatments can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. You will need to wear a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed skin and reapply it every 2 hours when outside or near a window, cover up with hats and long sleeves, and avoid the sun, especially from 10 a.m. to4 p.m.

Your odds for getting skin cancer again go up if you’ve had it before. So it’s now more important than ever to perform regular skin checks, know what raises your odds of skin cancer, and take all necessary steps to prevent it from coming back. Your doctor may even recommend twice-a-year check-ups going forward.

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How serious is non-melanoma skin cancer? ›

Non-melanoma skin cancer is a dangerous form of skin cancer that begins in the cells of the skin. There are several types of non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Depending on the type of skin cancer, the treatment usually involves surgery to remove the cancer cells.

What is the cure rate for non-melanoma skin cancer? ›

Survival for most non-melanoma skin cancers is excellent. The 5-year relative survival for BCC is 100%. This means that, on average, all of the people diagnosed with BCC are just as likely to live at least 5 years after their diagnosis as people in the general population.

What is the most effective treatment for skin cancer? ›

Surgery is the primary treatment for most skin cancers. For patients with basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, a dermatologist or other qualified doctor may perform an outpatient procedure using a local anesthetic.

Is non-melanoma curable? ›

However, for both BCC and SCC there can sometimes be considerable skin damage if the tumour is not treated. At least 9 out of 10 non-melanoma skin cancer cases are successfully cured.

What is the major cause of non-melanoma skin cancer? ›

Non-melanoma skin cancer is mainly caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light comes from the sun, as well as artificial sunbeds and sunlamps.

Can non-melanoma skin cancer turn into melanoma? ›

Basal cell carcinoma does not progress into melanoma. Each is a separate and distinct type of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer and one of two major nonmelanoma skin cancer types (the other is squamous cell carcinoma).

What is the most common non-melanoma skin cancer? ›

Several types of skin cancer fall within the broader category of nonmelanoma skin cancer, with the most common types being basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Which skin cancer has the best prognosis? ›

Basal cell skin cancer

It is extremely rare for basal cell cancer to spread to another area of the body. So people almost never die from this type of cancer. In a small number of people the cancer can come back in the skin and they need further treatment.

What is the second most common form of Nonmelanoma skin cancer medical term? ›

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a malignant tumor arising from the keratinocytes of the epidermis or dermal appendages. SCC is the second most common cutaneous malignancy after basal cell carcinoma (BCC). Unlike BCC, cutaneous SCC is associated with a greater risk of metastasis.

What is the new skin cancer treatment? ›

The therapy called Rhenium-SCT uses a resin paste containing radioactive particles to kill non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma.

Which skin cancer spreads the fastest? ›

Merkel cell carcinoma tends to grow fast and to spread quickly to other parts of your body. Treatment options for Merkel cell carcinoma often depend on whether the cancer has spread beyond the skin.

Which skin cancer is hardest to treat? ›

Melanoma is not as common as basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas but is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. If left untreated or caught in a late-stage, melanomas are more likely to spread to organs beyond the skin, making them difficult to treat and potentially life-limiting.

What are the symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancer? ›

What are the symptoms of nonmelanoma skin cancer?
  • A small, raised bump that is shiny or pearly.
  • A small, flat spot that is scaly, irregularly shaped, and pale, pink, or red.
  • Sores that don't heal.
  • A growth with raised edges, a lower area in the center, and brown, blue, or black areas.

What does non-melanoma skin cancer look like? ›

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This nonmelanoma skin cancer may appear as a firm red nodule, a scaly growth that bleeds or develops a crust, or a sore that doesn't heal. It most often occurs on the nose, forehead, ears, lower lip, hands, and other sun-exposed areas of the body.

Is skin cancer always a fatal disease? ›

Most skin cancers can be cured if they're treated before they have a chance to spread. However, more advanced cases of melanoma can be fatal. The earlier skin cancer is found and removed, the better your chances for a full recovery.

Which skin cancer is not serious? ›

Basal cell carcinoma

Most common form of skin cancer but the least dangerous.


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