Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that develop into mature blood stem cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell. The myeloid stem cell develops into a red blood cell, white blood cell, or platelet. The lymphoid stem cell develops into a lymphoblast and then into one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):

Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.

In mycosis fungoides, T-cell lymphocytes become cancerous and affect the skin. In the Sézary syndrome, cancerous T-cell lymphocytes affect the skin and the peripheral blood.

This summary describes the two most common types of cutaneous T-cell lymphomas: mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome. For information about other types of skin cancer or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, see the following PDQ summaries:

Mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome may move through the following phases:

  • Premycotic phase: A scaly, red rash in areas of the body that usually are not exposed to the sun. This rash does not cause symptoms and may last for months or years. It is hard to diagnose the rash as mycosis fungoides during this phase.
  • Patch phase: Thin, reddened, eczema-like rash.
  • Plaque phase: Thickened, red patches or reddened skin.
  • Tumor phase: Tumors form on the skin. These tumors may develop ulcers and the skin may get infected.

In the Sézary syndrome, skin all over the body is reddened, itchy, peeling, and painful. There may also be patches, plaques, or tumors on the skin. Cancerous T-cells are found in the blood. Mycosis fungoides does not always progress to the Sézary syndrome.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (the amount of skin affected and whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the blood, or other places in the body).
  • The type of lesion (patches, plaques, or tumors).
  • The number of cutaneous T-cell lymphocytes in the blood.

Mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome are difficult to cure. Treatment is usually palliative, to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life. Patients can live many years with this disease.

Stages of Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

The process used to find out if cancer has spread from the skin to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the lymph nodes, chest, abdomen, and pelvis, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the lymph nodes, chest, abdomen, and pelvis. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Lymph node biopsy: The removal of all or part of a lymph node. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

Stage I is divided into stage IA and stage IB as follows:

  • Stage IA: Less than 10% of the skin surface is covered with patches and/or plaques.
  • Stage IB: Ten percent or more of the skin surface is covered with patches and/or plaques.

Stage II is divided into stage IIA and stage IIB as follows:

In stage III, nearly all of the skin is reddened and may have patches, plaques, or tumors. Lymph nodes may be enlarged but cancer has not spread to them.

Stage IV is divided into stage IVA and stage IVB as follows:

  • Stage IVA: Most of the skin is reddened and any amount of the skin surface is covered with patches, plaques, or tumors. Cancer has spread to lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes may be enlarged.
  • Stage IVB: Most of the skin is reddened and any amount of the skin surface is covered with patches, plaques, or tumors. Cancer has spread to other organs in the body. Lymph nodes may be enlarged and cancer may have spread to them.

The B classification is based on how many abnormal lymphocytes are found in the blood.

Recurrent Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Recurrent mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome are cancers that have recurred (come back) after they have been treated. The cancer may come back in the skin or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

Different types of treatment are available for patients with mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Photodynamic therapy is a cancer treatment that uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells. A drug that is not active until it is exposed to light is injected into a vein. The drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. For skin cancer, laser light is shined onto the skin and the drug becomes active and kills the cancer cells. Photodynamic therapy causes little damage to healthy tissue. Patients undergoing photodynamic therapy will need to limit the amount of time spent in sunlight.

In one type of photodynamic therapy, called psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy, the patient receives a drug called psoralen and then ultraviolet radiation is directed to the skin. In another type of photodynamic therapy, called extracorporeal photochemotherapy, the patient is given drugs and then some blood cells are taken from the body, put under a special ultraviolet A light, and put back into the body.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

Sometimes, total skin electron beam (TSEB) radiation therapy is used to treat mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome. This is a type of radiation treatment in which the skin over the whole body is treated with rays of tiny particles called electrons.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Sometimes the chemotherapy is topical (applied to the skin in a cream, lotion, or ointment). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Topical corticosteroids are used to relieve red, swollen, and inflamed skin. They are a type of steroid. Topical corticosteroids may be applied in a cream, lotion, or ointment.

Retinoids, such as bexarotene, are drugs related to vitamin A that can slow the growth of certain types of cancer cells. The retinoids may be taken by mouth or applied to the skin.

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

Specific types of biologic therapy used in treating mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome include the following:

Targeted therapy is a treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Monoclonal antibody therapy is a type of targeted therapy used in the treatment of mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome.

Monoclonal antibody therapy uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation therapy uses a special lamp or laser that directs UVB radiation at the skin.

This treatment is a method of giving high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the bone marrow or blood of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After therapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options by Stage

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Stage I Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Treatment of stage I mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I mycosis fungoides/Sezary syndrome. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage II Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Treatment of stage II mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome is palliative (to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life) and may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II mycosis fungoides/Sezary syndrome. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage III Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Treatment of stage III mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome is palliative (to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life) and may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III mycosis fungoides/Sezary syndrome. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage IV Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Treatment of stage IV mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome is palliative (to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life) and may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV mycosis fungoides/Sezary syndrome. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Treatment Options for Recurrent Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

Treatment of recurrent mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome is usually within a clinical trial and may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent mycosis fungoides/Sezary syndrome. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Mycosis Fungoides and the Sézary Syndrome

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about mycosis fungoides and the Sézary syndrome, see the following:

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



Cancer Care Services

Clinical Trials