Skin caner rates continue to rise in Canada, accounting for one-third of all new cancer. That’s an alarming statistic—and a sad one, too, given that most cases are preventable.
Luckily, there have been tremendous advances in skin cancer treatment over the past five years, says Dr. Mariusz Sapijaszko, medical director of the Western Canada Dermatology Institute, especially when it comes to helping patients with advanced melanoma.
“In the past, we had limited – and not very successful – therapies,” he says. “Now, there are a range of options that can prolong survival. There’s finally a ray of hope for skin cancer treatment.” Here are three new skin cancer treatments that are making an impact on treatment and care.
Immune-based therapies called biologic are a broad class of medications that can have a significant impact on life expectancy – and even remission – for advanced melanoma. Unlike traditional therapies that target tumours directly, immuno-oncology uses drugs that work with the immune system to attack cancer cells.
Health Canada approved one of the most promising drugs, pembrolizumab, for the treatment of metastatic melanoma last May.
“New drugs are being tested in clinical trials that work on a genetic level to correct or prevent molecular abnormalities,” says Dr. Sapijaszko. One such drug, an oral medication called vismodegib, has already been approved by Health Canada to target advanced basal cell carcinoma and prevent the growth and spread of the disease.
This is one of the new skin cancer treatments that is widely used as an alternative to zapping precancerous spots with liquid nitrogen. “Photodynamic therapy takes advantage of the fact that precancerous cells are more metabolically active than normal cells,” says Dr. Ken Alanen, a dermatologist in Calgary.
“The precancerous cells ‘pick up’ Levulan, a medication that is metabolized into a compound that makes these cells selectively sensitive to laser destruction – it’s like wiping a blackboard free of chalk and is ideal for preventing non-melanoma skin cancer.”