Medications for Basal & Squamous Cell Skin Cancers

NYU Langone physicians may prescribe a targeted medication, which destroys cancer cells while limiting damage to healthy tissue, for a basal cell skin cancer that is large or has spread.

Chemotherapy, a group of drugs used to destroy cancer cells throughout the body, in addition to targeted medications, may be used to treat advanced squamous cell carcinoma.

Medication for Basal Cell Cancer

While basal cell skin cancer does not usually respond to chemotherapy, it often responds to a targeted drug called vismodegib, sold as Erivedge®. This targeted medication helps to disrupt the activity of a group of proteins in the body called hedgehog. 

In children, these proteins tell healthy cells to grow and divide. In adults, these proteins usually become inactive. With basal cell cancer, abnormal hedgehog proteins can cause cancer cells to grow and spread. 

Vismodegib can help shrink large basal cell skin cancers, making surgery more effective. For people with advanced basal cell cancer, the medication may keep the tumor in check for months or years. Vismodegib is usually taken daily by mouth.

Medication for Squamous Cell Cancer

At NYU Langone, people with advanced squamous cell carcinoma may receive chemotherapy along with targeted drugs to help shrink the cancer. Chemotherapy drugs are usually given through a vein with intravenous (IV) infusion and may include medications such as cisplatin, 5-fluorouracil, or doxorubicin. Doctors usually give chemotherapy for squamous cell carcinoma once every few weeks, over a period of several months. 

People with weakened immune systems, including those who have had an organ transplant and are taking immunosuppressive medications, may benefit from retinoids, medications related to vitamin A, or capecitabine, a chemotherapy drug taken by mouth. These medications may help prevent squamous cell cancers from growing rapidly and spreading further.

Managing Side Effects

Muscle cramps, skin rash, fatigue, decreased appetite, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are some of the side effects associated with the medications used to treat advanced basal and squamous cell cancers. Doctors can adjust the dose of these medications, substitute others, or prescribe integrative health therapies to help manage side effects.

Clinical Trials

NYU Langone researchers are conducting clinical trials of different medications for advanced basal cell and squamous cell cancers. Your doctor can help you decide if a clinical trial is right for you. 

In a clinical trial, doctors may prescribe medications called epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors to improve a squamous cell cancer’s response to chemotherapy. Squamous cell tumors can contain high levels of a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor. This protein signals cancer cells to grow and divide. 

Medications that interfere with their action include cetuximab, which is given by IV infusion, or erlotinib, which is taken by mouth each day.