The benefits of PDT for precancerous cells

More and more, patients are turning to Photodynamic Therapy (PDT), also known as blue light therapy, to treat precancerous cells in the skin. This treatment entails using photosensitizing agents in combination with a special light. Over time, the drug is absorbed by the cancer cells and, when activated by the light, reacts with oxygen to form a chemical that that kills the cells. Here, Julie Buttgen, community/media relations specialist, Parkview Noble Hospital, shares her personal experience with this unique therapy.

I am blessed with longevity in my family. My grandfather lived to be 102. My dad is 90 and still going strong; working, gardening, traveling, fishing and kayaking! I hope I have their genetic makeup, with one exception … skin cancer. My grandfather and my dad have both had many basal and squamous cell carcinomas removed over their lifetimes.

Last year when I went for my annual skin check with my dermatologist, Dara Spearman, MD, FAAD, at PPG- Premier Dermatology & Skin Care, she informed me I had quite a few pre-cancerous spots on my face. Because freezing them off would involve covering a fair amount of my face in liquid nitrogen, Dr. Spearman suggested Photodynamic Therapy (PDT), instead.

PDT is a treatment that uses special drugs, called photosensitizing agents, along with light to kill cancer cells. In my case, the photosensitizing drug, aminolevulinic acid, was a solution spread all over my face. Then I waited in the lobby for 60 minutes while my skin absorbed it, after which I returned to the treatment room to sit under the blue light for 16 minutes. The photosensitizing drugs only work after they have been activated or “turned on” by certain kinds of light.

For the treatment, I sat in a chair, placed goggles over my eyes and the technician wheeled the light up close to my face. During the treatment, I felt a burning sensation for the first three minutes or so. The technician had forewarned me this might happen. She also gave me a small battery-powered fan to hold close to my face to help cool the sensation and to distract me from the discomfort. The technician checked in on me a couple times to make sure I was doing alright and to let me know how much time was left.

Following the PDT treatment, I washed my face and the technician put sunscreen on my skin. I left, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect my face from UV exposure outside. I was instructed to stay inside for 48 hours or to only go out at night. I did experience redness and some peeling on my forehead, my chin and my left cheek. I had my treatment on a Friday and returned to work as scheduled on Monday.

I returned for a post-PDT check up with Dr. Spearman four weeks later, and she suggested I have a second treatment to get a few spots the first round hadn’t destroyed. This time, the aminolevulinic acid, was left on for 90 minutes to absorb deeper but the time under the blue light remained the same. At my second follow up, there were still two stubborn spots, on my right cheek, so the doctor applied liquid nitrogen to resolve the risk.

I am officially cleared and very thankful I didn’t wait until these became skin cancer to have them treated. I’m appreciative to Dr. Spearman and the team at PPG- Premier Dermatology & Skin Care who suggested this form of treatment and handled everything so smoothly and professionally.

During my visits, Dr. Spearman also gave explicit instructions to not leave the house without sunscreen anymore, ever. Something I had only done before when I was in Florida on vacation or was planning to be in the sun in the summer. So that has become my new normal, applying SPF 30 sunscreen right after applying my regular morning moisturizer.

The risk of getting basal and squamous cell skin cancers rise as people age due to the accumulation of sun exposure. Because my complexion is so similar to my dad’s, I have always just figured I would have issues with skin cancers like he has. But maybe, I have found a way to prevent these pre-cancers from turning into cancer. And I’ll be wearing my sunscreen, every day, from now on!


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