Removing Skin Cancer – How It's Done

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Doctor with Microscope

The most common treatment for skin cancer is to remove it. Skin cancer removal is often done with simple outpatient techniques or surgery. Skin cancer removal may be the only treatment needed for some early stage skin cancers that have not spread beyond a very small area. It is also used with other treatments for more advanced or high-risk skin cancers. For all of these methods, your doctor might need to apply a bandage with or without ointment to protect your skin after cancer removal. Dermatologists commonly remove skin cancer. Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a dermatologist or look here for a dermatologist in your area.

Mohs micrographic surgery removes a tumor layer by layer. It is used for high-risk tumors. It also used for skin cancer on the face and ears because it produces less scar tissue. Your doctor will first numb the area with a local anesthetic and then cuts away the tumor in thin layers. Each layer is checked for cancer cells with a microscope. Your doctor removes layers until no cancer cells are seen.

Mohs micrographic surgery is very effective in removing skin cancer. It is becoming more and more common because of its effectiveness and because it leads to less scarring.

Shave excision shaves a very small tumor or lesion off the skin’s surface. Your doctor will numb the area with a local anesthetic. The tumor or lesion is then shaved off with a blade.

Simple or wide excision removes many types of tumors, as well as nearby tissue. Your doctor will first numb the area with a local anesthetic. Your doctor then cuts out the tumor or lesion and some underlying tissue and surrounding healthy tissue. Your doctor stitches the cut and applies a bandage.

Electrodesiccation and curettage involves scraping off very small tumors with surgical tools. Your doctor will first numb the area with a local anesthetic and then scrapes off the tumor with a curette, a sharp spoon-like instrument. Your doctor stops any bleeding and seals the wound with electric current. This also destroys any remaining cancer cells. The process may be repeated several times.

Cryosurgery freezes a small tumor—a growth of cancer cells—or an area of abnormal cells that can become cancerous. Cryosurgery involves applying liquid nitrogen to the tumor or lesion. Liquid nitrogen is extremely cold and destroys the tumor and cells. Your doctor will spray it on the skin or apply it with a cotton-tipped device or a special tool called a probe. Your doctor may reapply the liquid nitrogen after the tumor or lesion has had time to freeze and thaw.

Dermabrasion removes the top layer of skin. It removes abnormal skin cells before they can become cancerous. Your doctor will first numb the area with a local anesthetic. You may have a sedative to keep you relaxed. The area may also be frozen with a liquid spray. Your doctor then uses a rotating burr or brush to rub off the top layer of skin that contains the tumor or lesion.

Laser surgery uses a laser beam to cut out a small tumor or precancerous lesion. Your doctor will first numb the area with a local anesthetic and then aims the laser beam to vaporize the tumor. The laser generates intense heat in a very small area, destroying the cells it touches.

Key Takeaways

  • Removing skin cancer using outpatient procedures or surgery is the most common treatment for skin cancer.
  • You may not need any further treatment for some early stage skin cancers that have not spread beyond a very small area.
  • Skin cancer removal is also used with other treatments for advanced or high-risk skin cancer.
  • Skin cancer may be removed by freezing (cryosurgery), scraping (electrodesiccation and curettage), shaving (shave excision), or removing the top layer of skin (dermabrasion). 
  • Surgery to remove skin cancer includes laser surgery, simple or wide excision, and Mohs micrographic surgery.
Medical Reviewers: Brian McDonough, MD Last Review Date: Apr 9, 2013

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