Topical Prescription Medications for Skin Cancer

In topical treatments for skin cancer, a prescribed cancer-fighting medication is applied to the skin in the form of an ointment, lotion or cream. Traditional chemotherapy medications administered orally or intravenously infrequently are used in the management of skin cancers.

What you should know about topical medications

Topical skin cancer treatments use medications to directly target cancer cells or to promote an immune response intended to eliminate cancer cells. These topical treatments are performed by the patient at home with the doctor monitoring the process during office visits. Topical treatment length can range from two to 12 weeks for pre-cancerous skin lesions to six to 12 weeks for uncomplicated skin cancers.

Why choose topical medications?

Topical medications can be effective for the treatment of pre-malignant skin conditions such as actinic keratoses. These medications also may be used in some cases to treat small and shallow basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Topical medications occasionally can offer non-invasive alternatives to surgery, although these treatment options often have less success than surgical treatment methods.

What to expect after the procedure

Following treatment, your doctor will bandage the treatment area. Patients will be required to:

  • Clean the treatment area after the first 24 hours and then four to five times a day thereafter.
  • Apply an ointment, such as petroleum jelly, after cleanings to prevent scabs.

Laser therapy patients also can expect the treated area to:

  • Swell for 24 to 48 hours after treatment.
  • Itch or sting for 12 to 72 hours after treatment.
  • Slough and peel off old skin five to seven days after treatment.

Healing typically takes 10 to 21 days, depending on the size and location of the procedure. After the treatment area is fully healed, patients should:

  • Use only oil-free makeup for at least two to three months.
  • Avoid sun exposure and apply an appropriate sunscreen to the area, which will have a lighter appearance following resurfacing.
  • Keep new skin well-moisturized.

How to prepare for the procedure

Before the procedure, an ASDS dermatologist will review the patient's medical history and conduct a physical exam. This is the time for the doctor and patient to discuss expectations, potential risks/benefits and outcomes of the procedure.

Patients also should:

  • Discuss any susceptibility to cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth since the procedure can trigger breakouts in at-risk individuals.
  • Avoid medications or supplements that can affect blood clotting - such as aspirin, ibuprofen or vitamin E - for 10 days before surgery.
  • Avoid smoking for two weeks before and after the procedure.


Possible risks

As with any treatment, there are risks associated with laser treatments, though they are minimized in the hands of a qualified ASDS dermatologist. Risks include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bleeding
  • Scarring
  • Crusting
  • Discoloration