What is photodynamic therapy?

Photodynamic therapy (PDT), also known as photoradiation therapy, phototherapy or photochemotherapy, is a skin cancer treatment option that uses photodynamic light applied directly to the tumor site to destroy cancerous cells.

Who is a candidate for photodynamic therapy?

You may be a candidate for PDT if you have large but shallow basal cell carcinoma, Bowen’s disease or actinic keratosis. It is also used to treat pre-cancerous conditions of the skin. 

You are not a candidate for PDT if:

  • You have a blood disease that can affect the skin or nervous system or if you are allergic to porphyrins
  • Your cancer has spread throughout the body
  • You have deep basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma - the photodynamic light can’t reach the lower layers of the skin.

Side effects from photodynamic therapy

Side effects associated with PDT include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness or blisters 
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Fever 
  • Severe sunburn - If you do not avoid sunlight for a specified period after surgery, you may experience severe sunburn

Benefits of photodynamic therapy

There are many advantages of having PDT for skin cancer versus surgery or radiation therapy. Benefits include:

  • Long-term side effects are rare
  • Minimally invasive
  • Shorter procedure duration
  • Does not require a hospital stay
  • Precise targeting 
  • Can be repeated as necessary
  • Minimal scarring
  • Less expensive than other treatments

What to expect during photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy is performed as an outpatient procedure either in a clinic or in a hospital outpatient setting. 

Your Mercy Health doctor will apply a topical medication to the tumor site, and then after three to six hours, he or she will activate the medication with a strong light. This process will cause the drug to react with oxygen that creates a substance that selectively eliminates basal cell carcinoma cells while minimizing damage to the healthy surrounding tissue.

During the procedure, you may feel a stinging or burning sensation in the treatment area. If pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe medication to help alleviate the pain.

If you have multiple skin cancer tumors at different locations, your doctor may treat each area during the procedure.

Recovery from photodynamic therapy

Following discharge, your doctor will advise you to avoid the sun or exposure to UV light for at least 48 hours after surgery. 

You will likely develop a scab at the treatment site. Your care team will instruct you on how to care for it and how long to keep a dressing on it. The scab should heal within three weeks.

If your skin cancer was deep, you may need a follow-up treatment within four weeks.

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