Skin cancer

Treatment

Skin cancer can usually be treated successfully if it’s detected early. 

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center offers comprehensive skin cancer care at the Multidisciplinary Skin Oncology Clinic, including advanced treatments and new options available only through clinical studies.

A diagnosis of cancer can feel overwhelming. We have an experienced, compassionate team ready to help. 

This page focuses on treatment for:

  • Precancerous skin conditions
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma 

We have dedicated sections about melanoma treatment and Merkel cell carcinoma treatment.

Clinical trial A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people. These studies test new methods of screening, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of a disease. Precancerous A condition that may (or is likely to) become cancer. Also called premalignant.

Skin cancer expertise at Fred Hutch

Everything you need is here

We have dermatologists, surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists who specialize in skin cancer; the most advanced diagnostic, treatment and recovery programs; and extensive support. 

Radiation oncologist A physician who has special training in using radiation to treat cancer.
Innovative skin cancer therapies

Fred Hutch patients have access to advanced therapies being explored in clinical studies for skin cancer conducted here and at UW Medicine.

Clinical trial A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people. These studies test new methods of screening, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of a disease.
Skin cancer treatment tailored to you

We view treatment as a collaborative effort. Your Fred Hutch doctors will explain all your options and recommend a treatment plan based on the type, location, size and stage of your cancer and your overall health.

Stage The extent of a cancer in the body. Staging is usually based on the size of the tumor, whether lymph nodes contain cancer and whether the cancer has spread from the original site to other parts of the body. Treatment plan A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and the possible side effects and expected length of treatment. A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and the possible side effects and expected length of treatment. A treatment plan may also include information about how much the treatment is likely to cost and about regular follow-up care after treatment ends.
Team-based approach

Your personal team includes more than your skin cancer doctors. Additional experts who specialize in treating people with cancer will be involved if you need them — experts like a palliative care professional, social worker, physical therapist or dietitian.

Learn More About Supportive Care Services

Ongoing care and support

During and after treatment, your team continues to provide follow-up care on a schedule tailored to you. The Fred Hutch Survivorship Clinic is also here to help you live your healthiest life as a skin cancer survivor.

Treatment types

Treatment looks different for different people depending on your diagnosis. We tailor your treatment plan to you. Learn more about the treatment types offered at Fred Hutch. 

Treatment plan A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and the possible side effects and expected length of treatment. A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and the possible side effects and expected length of treatment. A treatment plan may also include information about how much the treatment is likely to cost and about regular follow-up care after treatment ends.
Cryosurgery

Doctors may use liquid nitrogen on precancerous conditions to freeze and kill the cells. The skin will later blister and shed off. This procedure will sometimes leave a white scar. More than one freezing may be needed.

Precancerous A condition that may (or is likely to) become cancer. Also called premalignant.
Cryosurgery

Doctors may use liquid nitrogen on precancerous conditions to freeze and kill the cells. 

Laser therapy

If you have a precancerous condition that’s only in the outer layer of your skin, your doctors may use a narrow beam of high-intensity light to destroy the cells.

Precancerous A condition that may (or is likely to) become cancer. Also called premalignant.
Laser therapy

If you have a precancerous condition that’s only in the outer layer of your skin, your doctors may use a narrow beam of high-intensity light to destroy the cells.

Curettage and electrodessication

This is a common procedure where the cancer is removed with a sharp, spoon-shaped instrument called a curette. Electrodessication uses an electric current to control bleeding and kill any remaining cancer cells after the doctor uses the curette. You may be left with a white, flat scar after this procedure.

Curettage and electrodessication

This is a common procedure where the cancer is removed with a sharp, spoon-shaped instrument called a curette. 

Surgery

Skin cancer-specialized surgeons

Our skin cancer surgery team includes experts in surgical oncology, reconstruction and head and neck surgery. This team specializes in the treatment of skin cancer, and you can feel confident knowing that the surgeons who care for you are best suited for your specific diagnosis.

Mohs micrographic surgery

Depending on the size and location of your tumor, your team may recommend a method called Mohs micrographic surgery. The surgeon removes one thin layer of tissue at a time. During surgery, each layer is looked at with a microscope to see if the surgeon needs to remove another layer in order to get all of the tumor. Mohs is sometimes used for skin cancer in cosmetically sensitive areas (to reduce the amount of skin removed), for tumors with poorly defined borders or for cancers that have come back.

Wide excision

For some skin cancers, you may need a simple excision (removing it by cutting it out). Your doctor removes the tumor, along with a margin of normal-looking skin around the tumor. If the cancer is thicker, your surgeon will have to cut wider margins. This is important so that the cancer does not grow back at the original location later. 

Wound closure and reconstruction

The surgical oncologist who removes your skin cancer may be able to close the wound by bringing the edges of the skin together. If the wound is too large or the cancer went too deep for this approach, our reconstructive surgeons offer more options. One is closing the wound with neighboring skin that is turned into place (local tissue rearrangement). Others involve using skin from another part of your body (skin grafting) or using skin plus other tissue from another body area (free-flap reconstruction). Learn more about reconstructive surgery.
 

Oncologist A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment, such as treating cancer with radiation. A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment. For example, a radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer with radiation.
Surgery

Our skin cancer surgeon team includes experts in surgical oncology, reconstruction and head and neck surgery.

Radiation therapy

If you have skin cancer that is hard to treat with surgery, such as cancer on your eyelid, the tip of your nose or your ear, you may need radiation therapy, which uses high-energy rays or other particles to kill the cancer cells.

Radiation therapy The use of high-energy radiation from X-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy). Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, such as a radiolabeled monoclonal antibody, that travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body.
Radiation therapy

If you have skin cancer that is hard to treat with surgery, such as cancer on your eyelid, the tip of your nose or your ear, you may need radiation therapy.

Topical chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer that’s limited to the top layer of the skin or to treat precancerous skin conditions. It may be prescribed in a cream or lotion form. These medicines are usually applied daily for several weeks. They may cause inflammation, which goes away after treatment.

Chemotherapy Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. It may be given alone or with other treatments. Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, infusion or on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It may be given alone or with other treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or biologic therapy. Precancerous A condition that may (or is likely to) become cancer. Also called premalignant.
Topical chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer that’s limited to the top layer of the skin or to treat precancerous skin conditions.

New treatments

Some doctors are using imiquimod (Aldara), which is an immune-response modifier, to treat early basal cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis (squamous cell carcinoma precursor) and very thin squamous cell carcinoma. It is a topical medicine applied several times a week.

New treatments

Some doctors are using imiquimod (Aldara), which is an immune-response modifier, to treat early basal cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis (squamous cell carcinoma precursor) and very thin squamous cell carcinoma. 

Treatment for advanced skin cancer

n rare cases, squamous cell carcinoma can grow deeper into the skin and can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. The most susceptible areas are sites of a chronic inflammatory skin condition, mucous membranes (skin that lines the mouth, nose, vagina and anus) and the lips. Surgery alone is not effective in treating metastatic skin cancer. Your treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy (which boosts your immune system’s ability to fight the cancer.)

Chemotherapy Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. It may be given alone or with other treatments. Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, infusion or on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It may be given alone or with other treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or biologic therapy. Immunotherapy A type of therapy that uses substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection and other diseases. A therapy that uses substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection and other diseases. Some immunotherapies only target certain cells of the immune system. Others affect the immune system in a general way. Types of immunotherapy include cytokines, vaccines, bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) and some monoclonal antibodies. Metastatic A metastatic cancer is a cancer that has spread to other areas of the body by way of the lymph system or bloodstream. Radiation therapy The use of high-energy radiation from X-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy). Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, such as a radiolabeled monoclonal antibody, that travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body.
Treatment for advanced skin cancer

In rare cases, squamous cell carcinoma can grow deeper into the skin and can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.