About chemotherapy cream and immunotherapy cream

Your doctor may prescribe a cream that you apply to the area to treat non-melanoma skin cancer. There are 2 types:

  • chemotherapy cream
  • immunotherapy cream.

What is chemotherapy cream for skin cancer?

Chemotherapy is an anti-cancer treatment used to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy cream or lotion can be applied directly onto the skin cancer. This is called topical chemotherapy.

Usually a drug called fluorouracil (Efudix®) is used to treat some early superficial basal cell carcinomas (BCCs). Fluorouracil is sometimes called 5FU.

How to apply chemotherapy cream for skin cancer

Your doctor, nurse or a pharmacist will give you the cream to put on at home. It is important to follow the advice they give you.

You apply the cream on either once or twice a day. The area can usually be left uncovered. But your doctor or nurse may advise you to cover the area with a waterproof dressing after putting on the cream. You usually use the cream for 4 weeks.

Side effects of chemotherapy cream

The treatment should make the skin red and inflamed. The area may become sore and leak fluid. If the skin reaction is particularly severe, the treatment may be paused or sometimes stopped.

Your doctor may prescribe a steroid cream to help with the inflammation. The skin usually takes about 2 weeks to fully heal after you finish the treatment. But it can take longer.

Try to protect the treated area from the sun, as it can make the inflammation worse. Usually, there are no other side effects with this type of chemotherapy.

What is immunotherapy cream for skin cancer?

Immunotherapy is an anti-cancer treatment that uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells.

An immunotherapy cream called imiquimod (Aldara®) is a cream that stimulates the immune system. Doctors may use it to treat some small, superficial BCCs. It is usually used in areas where surgery may be difficult or if you have more than one cancer.

How to apply immunotherapy cream for skin cancer

Your doctor, nurse or a pharmacist will give you the cream to put on at home. They will explain how to put it on and how often to use it. It is important to follow the advice they give you. You usually apply the cream on once a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks.

Side effects of immunotherapy cream

You may feel a burning or tender feeling in the area being treated. This is most common at the start of treatment. Some redness or crusting of the skin usually occurs during the treatment. But there should be no permanent scarring. If the skin reaction is very strong, your doctor may give you a steroid cream to help. It is normal for redness and some crusting to continue for about 2 weeks after the treatment has finished.

Occasionally, the immunotherapy cream may cause shivers and other flu-like symptoms. If this happens, tell your doctor or specialist nurse. They may advise you to stop using it.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our skin cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) NICE pathways: Skin Cancer Treatment overview. (updated 2020) 

    Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Sunlight exposure: risks and benefits. NICE guideline [NG34] Published:2016.

    British Journal of Dermatology. British Association of Dermatologists guidelines for the management of people with cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. 2020.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Cemiplimab for treating metastatic or locally advanced cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma [TA592] Published: 07 August 2019. 

    BMJ Best Practice. Overview of Skin Cancer. (updated 2019)

    British Association of Dermatologists. Service Guidance and Standards for Mohs Micrographic Surgery (MMS). 2020.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor James Larkin, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

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