There is no specific, definitive treatment for Bowen's disease. Several different therapies may be used all of which have excellent success rates. The specific treatment for an individual case depends upon numerous factors, such as the site of the body affected; the size, thickness and number of the lesion(s); the presence or absence of certain symptoms; an individual’s age and general health; and/or additional elements. Decisions concerning the use of particular drug regimens and/or other treatments should be made by physicians and other members of the health care team in careful consultation with the patient based upon the specifics of his or her case; a thorough discussion of the potential benefits and risks, including possible side effects and long-term effects; patient preference; and other appropriate factors.
A wide variety of treatment options exist for individuals with Bowen disease including topical chemotherapy, cryotherapy, curettage, photodynamic therapy and surgery. Most therapies have an excellent response rate and the prognosis of Bowen disease in most cases is excellent. The response to a particular therapy may vary – what works for one person may be less effective in another. A treatment plan for Bowen disease will be tailored to a patient based on what is best for his or her individual case.
Some individuals may opt for no treatment (watch and wait). Watch and wait refers to when physicians follow a patient with a slow-growing disorder without giving treatment until progression of the disease occurs. This allows some people to avoid undergoing such therapies for many years. Elderly patients with a slow growing lesion in an area where healing may be poor (e.g., lower leg) are candidates for watch and wait.
Topical chemotherapy involves the application of creams applied directly to the lesion. Two common topical medications used to treat Bowen disease are 5-fluorouracil and imiquimod 5%. These treatments may be used alone or in conjunction with other therapies. 5-fluorouracil works by destroying the abnormal skin cells. Generally, affected individuals apply the cream once or twice daily for at least two weeks if not much longer.
Imiquimod 5% is generally used for lesions on the lower legs, larger lesions and the erythroplasia of Queyrat variant of Bowen disease.
Many individuals with Bowen disease may opt for surgical removal of a lesion. Straightforward surgical removal in which the lesion is cut out and the wound is closed by sutures may be used. Surgical removal of a lesion is highly successful, but will leave a surgical scar.
A specific type of surgery called Mohs micrographic surgery is usually not required, but occasionally may be recommended for some individuals with Bowen disease, especially those with larger lesions, recurrent lesions on the head and neck or lesions that are located on areas that require as much preservation of the tissue as possible, e.g. around the nail. With this surgery, a surgeon uses a precise technique to remove the diseased tissue one layer at a time. According to the medical literature, Mohs surgery has the highest cure rate of all treatment options.
Cryotherapy may also be used to treat Bowen disease. Cryotherapy is the use of extreme cold to freeze and destroy the tissue and cells of skin lesions. Cryotherapy is a minimally invasive treatment option. With cryotherapy a freezing substance such as liquid nitrogen or argon gas is applied directly to the lesion. Cryotherapy is most effective for single or small lesions.
Another surgical procedure used to treat individuals with Bowen disease is curettage with cautery/electrocautery. With curettage, the lesion is scraped off the skin. The procedure is usually performed under anesthesia. In some cases, curettage may be followed by cauterization, in which the lesion is burned by an electrical charge. This procedure may need to be repeated in some cases and will often leave a small white scar.
Photodynamic therapy, a procedure in which a drug known as a photosensitizer is used along with a special type of red light, to treat some individuals with Bowen disease who have large or multiple lesions. During photodynamic therapy, the drug is administered to an affected individual and absorbed by the affected cells. A specific wavelength of light is used to activate the drug which binds with oxygen creating a chemical that destroys the affected cells.
In the past, x-ray or radiation therapy (radiotherapy) was often used to treat individuals with Bowen disease, especially individuals who were poor candidates for surgery or who had multiple lesions. Individuals with lesions on the legs are not recommended for radiotherapy because of poor wound healing in that area. Radiotherapy is used less often for the treatment of Bowen disease today than it was in the past.
The most important step to take to lower the risk of Bowen disease is to limit or avoid excess exposure to the sun. Protective clothing, sunscreen, avoiding tanning beds and other measures can be taken to lower the risk of developing Bowen disease.