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Surgery for skin cancer

surgical oncology

Surgery for non-melanoma skin cancer

Surgery is the primary treatment for most skin cancers. A surgeon will typically perform skin cancer surgery to remove a localized skin cancer. For skin cancers that have not spread, surgery may be curative, and no other treatment may be needed.

In general, the skin cancer cells are removed along with a small amount of surrounding normal skin (known as the margin). This minor surgery is often performed using only a local anesthetic. If nearby lymph nodes are enlarged and your doctor is concerned that the skin cancer cells may have spread, he or she may want to perform a lymph node biopsy to look for cancer cells.

Other non-melanoma skin cancer surgeries & therapies

In some cases, nonsurgical forms of therapy may be used to remove or destroy a localized skin cancer. These techniques are most often used for treating small, early stage basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas. Non-surgical procedures include:

  • Cryotherapy: Also known as cryosurgery, this technique uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the cancer cells. This is usually only used for small skin cancers.
  • Photodynamic therapy: In this technique, a special chemical is applied directly to the tumor, or injected into the bloodstream. This chemical makes the cancer cells sensitive to certain types of light, which is then focused on the tumor, causing the cancer cells to die.
  • Topical chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the use of drugs that kill cancer cells. In this form of therapy, a cancer-killing drug is placed directly on the skin cancer. However, because the drug can only kill the cells it contacts, and cannot penetrate deeper into the skin, it is generally used only for very superficial skin cancers.
  • Immune response modifiers: Certain drugs, such as imiquimod or BCG vaccine, can boost the body’s natural immune response against non-melanoma skin cancers, and may be applied to, or injected directly into, the cancer.
  • Laser surgery: This is a newer technique that uses a laser beam to destroy cancer cells, and may be used to treat very superficial skin cancers.

Rotational skin flaps and skin grafts are commonly used for reconstruction following surgical removal of large skin cancers, or skin cancers of the face and head.

Find information about melanoma surgery.

Skin cancer reconstructive surgery

What is surgery?

Surgery is used to diagnose, stage and treat cancer, and certain cancer-related symptoms. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our experienced surgeons have performed thousands of procedures and will discuss appropriate surgical options that meet your individual needs.

Whether a patient is a candidate for surgery depends on factors such as the type, size, location, grade and stage of the tumor, as well as general health factors such as age, physical fitness and other medical comorbidities. For many patients, surgery will be combined with other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or hormone therapy. These may be administered before surgery (neoadjuvant) or after surgery (adjuvant) to help prevent cancer growth, spread or recurrence.

Early in the treatment planning process, we plan for and proactively manage any side effects from surgery. Our nutritionists, rehabilitation therapists and naturopathic clinicians are available to work with your surgical oncologist to support your healing and quality of life. Our reconstructive surgeons perform procedures to restore the body's appearance and function, often at the time of surgery or following surgery.