The month of May is Skin Cancer Awareness month, which aims to educate as many people as possible about skin cancer to reduce the number of cases in the U.S. and around the world. The more people know about this prominent, but preventable and often curable disease, the less widespread it will become.
A major focus of this educational month is making the public aware of the many skin cancer treatment options available. Indeed, today there are several effective treatments for different types of skin cancer, and doctors and scientists are always working on new and improved strategies for eliminating skin cancer from the body. Let’s outline these skin cancer treatment options you and everyone should know about.
Developed in the 1930s, Mohs micrographic surgery remains the most generally effective method for curing nonmelanoma skin cancers, especially squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs). This procedure has evolved a bit over the near-century it’s been in practice, but the principle behind it has stayed the same. In a single visit, a certified surgeon removes the visible portion of a given tumor and some surrounding tissue. This tissue is then carefully examined under a microscope where the surgeon and/or lab technician checks for any remaining cancer cells, mapping out the direction and depth of the tumor. This allows the surgeon to solely target the patient’s tumor and leave as much healthy tissue unscathed as possible. The processes of excision and examination repeat until no traces of cancer remain.
Standard surgical excision is often performed on smaller, less-developed SCCs and other potentially-threatening moles and lesions. Like Mohs surgery, this process involves cutting away the tumor and some surrounding tissue with a scalpel, but unlike Mohs, there is no immediate microscopic examination. Instead, the excised tumor is sent to a lab and the patient is sent home. If cancer cells are found beyond the tissue’s margins, the patient may then have to return for further surgery.
This procedure is used to remove a number of skin lesions, both benign and malignant. As such, electrodesiccation may be recommended for patients with low-risk basal or squamous cell carcinomas. During this treatment, the growth is carefully scraped away using a curette, and the ensuing wound is cauterized via a heated device -- this stops any bleeding and improves the chance of success.
Not only can powerful heat help remove skin lesions -- so can powerful cold. Cryosurgery effectively freezes (and therefore kills) cancerous cells with liquid nitrogen so they fall away or can be easily removed by a surgeon.
Chemotherapy is probably the most well-known treatment for cancer, generally speaking. However, it’s most often used on internal cancers, such as lung cancer. That said, chemotherapy can also be employed to eliminate skin cancer, but usually as a last resort. Drugs like Dacarbazine (DTIC) and Temozolomide can aid in stopping the growth and spread of skin cancer cells, though side effects are common and sometimes severe, so other medications may be administered to combat them.
Another less common treatment for skin cancer, radiation therapy refers to the use of a low-energy X-ray beam on targeted cancer cells. It may take multiple treatments over the course of several weeks to fully destroy a given tumor. Radiation is usually recommended for patients with cancerous lesions that are challenging to remove via surgical means, and/or patients that should not undergo surgery for medical reasons. In some cases, radiation therapy is used in conjunction with other skin cancer treatments.
Some less risky tumors can be removed via a laser beam. This type of surgery involves sending a specific wavelength of light directly at a tumor to vaporize it.
Believe it or not, certain topical medications can also work as a basal and squamous cell skin cancer treatment. When applied to the tumor(s), drugs like Imiquimod can eliminate cancer cells by activating one’s immune system to target those specific areas. And medications such as Ingenol mebutate and 5-Fluorouracil can help stop cancerous cell division.
In recent years, researchers have begun to develop new ways to treat melanoma, namely via immunotherapy. These therapies enhance one’s immune response to skin cancer by either encouraging tumor-attacking cells to work harder or introducing artificial immune proteins into the body. The Skin Cancer Foundation has more specific details on these immunotherapies here.
While it’s heartening to know how many different ways there are to treat and cure skin cancer, the most effective way to keep your skin healthy is by avoiding skin cancer to begin with. This is why everyone should follow best practices such as wearing sunscreen year-round and avoiding prolonged UV-ray exposure, as well as receive yearly skin cancer screenings from a trusted dermatologist and keep tabs on their own skin as well. Doing so will help you and your doctor notice potential early signs of skin cancer. And the earlier you detect skin cancer, the easier it is to get rid of for good.
Premier Dermatology Partners is proud to observe Skin Cancer Awareness Month yet again by educating our patients about skin cancer treatment, prevention, risk factors. To learn more about our mission, providers, and all the services we offer, contact us today.