Are Non-melanoma Skin Cancers Treatable – If So, How?

If you're facing the challenges of choosing treatment options for more complicated cases of a non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosis, it can seem like there is an endless amount of information available. This can make it very difficult to know where to start, when seeking the best treatment options available.

And with an estimated 3 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers diagnosed every year in the United States, you're not alone.

What Is the Difference Between Melanoma and Non-melanoma Skin Cancers?

Melanoma is a highly aggressive form of skin cancer that often spreads (metastatic) and has a worse prognosis than non-melanoma skin cancers, especially if not discovered early in their development. While surgery (resection of the primary lesion) is generally recommended for both types of skin cancers, treatment approaches for more advanced cases vary.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most frequently diagnosed skin cancers. In most cases, they are localized and can be treated with surgery or another form of local intervention. They also have a much lower recurrence rate than that of melanomas, especially if caught and treated early. Both of these cancers are less likely to result in death. However, it is important to keep in mind that both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas can recur locally or spread to distant sites after the primary lesion has been treated.

Diagnosing and Treating Basal Cell and Squamous Cell Carcinoma

It's important to have regular skin checks or screenings for potential skin cancer lesions. A dermatologist or primary care provider is well-trained in how to look for these abnormalities and can advise you on the recommended frequency of having these screenings performed. If lesions are found, act quickly and gather as much information as possible on your unique case.

Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are diagnosed in the same manner. The process starts when a doctor finds a suspicious spot or lesion. A biopsy is performed, and if it comes back positive for cancer cells, surgical excision is usually the first course of action. Topical therapies or cryotherapies are another option, but tend to be limited to specific circumstances.

If the tumor has grown large or has regrown in the same spot, radiation therapy may be the next step. In rare cases where the cancer has metastasized to the lung or lymph nodes, systemic therapy (such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy) may be necessary.

Finding Nonsurgical Help for Your Carcinoma

What happens if you fall into the latter group of individuals who have large tumors that are not eligible for surgical removal, or are metastatic or unresponsive carcinomas?

Your dermatologist or surgeon will ideally refer you to a clinic that offers specialized multidisciplinary treatment involving a dermatologist, surgical oncologist and medical oncologist who can work together to create the optimal treatment protocol for your individual case. With this approach, you should receive the best care from a wide scope of experience.

If your basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma is inoperable, it's of utmost importance that you find the best care possible with providers experience in treating your disease type. Multidisciplinary approaches are key in these cases.

We are here to help.

If you have questions about the MedStar Georgetown Cancer Network or are ready to schedule a consultation with one of our specialists, call us at 855-546-1815.

Geoffrey T. Gibney, MD, is a co-leader of the Melanoma Disease Group at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and MedStar Georgetown Cancer Network, and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics (Phase I) program. He is well known for treating patients with advanced non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and merkel cell carcinoma), renal cell carcinoma and other rare skin cancers. Dr. Gibney is board certified in both internal medicine and medical oncology.