What Are the Treatments for Superficial Basal Cell Skin Cancer?


Basal cell carcinoma---a type of skin cancer---is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Lesions form in the epidermis (top layer of skin). Superficial basal cell carcinoma is characterized by nonaggressive multiple slow-growing pink or red lesions. Sun exposure accounts for the majority of lesions but the lesions can sometimes appear on unexposed areas. This cancer typically does not spread beyond the skin, but delayed treatment could result in disfigurement and other problems.

Topical Treatments

Doctors sometimes use topical treatments that contain chemotherapy or immune-system modulating agents, according to Dr. Michael Ramsey of Emedicine.com. The most common treatments include imiquimod, which encourages the immune system to fight off the cancerous cells. Treatment consists of five weekly applications of the cream for at least six weeks. The cure rate ranges from 80 to 90 percent, according to the Skin Care Foundation. You cannot use this treatment if you have any kind of abnormal immune function or on lesions of the head and neck.

The chemotherapy drug 5-Fluorouracil (5FU), in cream form, also treats superficial basal cell carcinomas. It interferes with the cancer’s ability to produce new cells. A typical course of treatment involves twice daily applications for three to six weeks and has a similar success rate as imiquimod, according to the Foundation.

Photodynamic Therapy

Photodynamic therapy involves applying medication to the lesions that increases their sensitivity to light. Applying a strong light to these areas activates the medicine and helps destroy the cancerous matter. It works particularly well for superficial lesions, according to Ramsey. This treatment does not have approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for skin cancer in particular but has been used for this off-label purpose for over 20 years. You need to protect yourself from the sun for two days after treatment.

Surgical Procedures

Surgical procedures to remove superficial basal cell carcinomas involve cutting or scraping away the cancerous tissue. Some of these procedures require removing a margin of healthy skin around the lesion to ensure all malignant tissue has been removed, which increases the risk of scarring.


Cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen to destroy the tumor. Ramsey notes this treatment can effectively treat nonaggressive basal cell carcinomas, but only very experienced cryosurgeons use it for this purpose as experience with the procedure plays a big role in treatment success. This treatment can cause scarring.

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