Photodynamic therapy for skin cancer
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a newer treatment for skin cancer.
PDT uses light sources combined with a light-sensitive drug (sometimes called a photosensitising agent) to destroy cancer cells. PDT is particularly useful in areas where the skin cancer develops directly over bone, such as in Bowen’s disease on the shins and hands.
Before your treatment, the doctor may remove any scabs from the area. A photosensitising cream (for example Metvix®, which contains methyl aminolevulinate) will then be applied to your skin. It will be left on for a specific time period, usually between 3-6 hours, depending on the type of cream that’s used. This is so it can penetrate into the skin.
After the cream is removed, the doctor shines a special light onto the treatment area. The light treatment usually lasts 8-45 minutes depending on the light source used.
Afterwards, a dressing is put on to cover the area and protect it from light. You may need to keep the dressing on the treated area for up to 36 hours after your treatment. You will be given instructions about this before you leave hospital.
Usually only one treatment of PDT is needed, but occasionally two or three further treatments may be given if your skin cancer is thick.
Your doctor or nurse will be able to give you more detailed information about your specific PDT treatment.
Side effects of PDT for skin cancer
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Before your PDT treatment, your doctor or specialist nurse may advise you to take a couple of paracetamol tablets to prevent any pain. For many people this is all they need, but occasionally a local anaesthetic is given before treatment.
You may feel a bit of discomfort, like a burning sensation, when you’re having the treatment. A cooling fan can sometimes be used to relieve this.
At the end of treatment, a steroid cream may be applied to the treated area to stop it becoming painful. You may be given a steroid cream to use when you get home in case the area becomes painful later on.
Sensitivity to light
The treated area of skin will be sensitive to daylight and bright, indoor lighting. This effect will probably last for about 24 hours. You will need to keep the treated area of skin covered during this time so that your skin doesn’t burn.
After that you can wash, bathe or shower as usual, but you’ll still need to treat your skin gently and not rub the area until it’s healed.
After PDT, a crust may form over the treated area. The crust will fall off naturally in a few weeks, leaving the healed, new skin underneath. Usually there’s no scarring and the appearance of the healed skin is very good