You Have Skin Cancer: Now What?

If you've been diagnosed with skin cancer, you may have reacted with panic, anger, grief, a thousand other understandably negative emotions. But it's important to realize that modern medicine offers a variety of treatment options to help you conquer this ailment, especially in the early stages when removal of the lesion can effectively cure you of the condition. So take a deep breath, try to relax, and have a look at some of the more common techniques used to remove skin cancers.

Excision Surgery

The most straightforward way to deal with a skin cancer is to excise it surgically. In fact, you may have already experienced a type of surgery called a shave excision when your dermatologist removed the a layer of skin from the lesion for biopsy. Additional excision removes not only the surface lesion but also a small ring of healthy tissue surrounding it. This provides a margin for error and helps to ensure that all the cancerous tissue was removed. Large excisions may call for a skin graft to cover the wound and promote healing.

Mohs Surgery

This type of skin cancer surgery is ideal when you want to remove the smallest amount of tissue possible to minimize scarring. Your dermatologist will start by removing the topmost layers of skin, proceeding one layer at a time and viewing each excised layer through a microscope. This process permits him to stop cutting as soon as he reaches a layer displaying no cancer cells. This technique is also referred to as micrographic surgery.

Curettage and Desiccation

If you have only a small squamous cell or basal cell cancer on the surface on the skin, one of the simplest techniques for removing it is to scoop it out, a procedure known as curettage. Your dermatologist will use a little spoon-shaped device called a curette to remove the lesion. This procedure is typically followed by desiccation, in which another device uses electric current to kill any last cancer cells that might be left behind. You'll need only a local anesthetic for this in-office procedure, and the wound should be small enough that you don't require any stitches.


Another quick and non-invasive form of skin cancer surgery to consider is cryosurgery, or freezing of cancer cells. This is good option if you have a bleeding or clotting disorder because it causes much less bleeding than more traditional forms of surgery. Liquid nitrogen is applied to the skin to bring it down to a very low temperature nearly instantly. As the area thaws, the cancer cells die. Although no cutting is involved in cryosurgery, total healing time may take several weeks as the wound oozes and eventually forms a protective crust.

Radiation and Chemotherapy

Two mainstays of cancer treatment, radiation and chemotherapy, can prove equally effective against skin cancer. A tightly focused application of radiation can kill cancerous basal cell or squamous cell lesions, making it a good alternative to potentially disfiguring surgery for the treatment of especially large areas.

Chemotherapy may be either topical or systemic, depending on the severity and spread of the cancer. Superficial cancers can often be killed by applying a topical chemotherapy cream to the affected area for a period of weeks. A more advanced case of basal cell cancer may also respond to an experimental technique in which chemotherapy drugs are injected into a vein. Systemic chemotherapy can also be used to treat a melanoma that has spread beyond the immediate area. 

Even as you're undergoing treatment for your skin cancer, you'll want to adopt some smart practices to prevent any additional cancers from forming. Always wear a sunblock that offers protection against both UVA and UVB radiation when going outdoors (even on cloudy days), and wear protective clothing such as a hat just to make sure. As a skin cancer survivor, you should also schedule annual checkups with your dermatologist to make sure you remain cancer free. You can be healthy again, so take heart -- and take action!