Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell Overview

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Treating Skin Cancer - Basal and Squamous Cell TOPICS

Surgery for basal and squamous cell skin cancers

There are many different kinds of surgery for basal cell and squamous cell cancers. The type of treatment that’s best for you depends on how large the cancer is, where it is on the body, and sometimes on other factors such as the exact type of skin cancer it is. Often basal cell and squamous cell cancers can be cured by minor surgery. For skin cancers with a high risk of spreading, surgery might be followed by other treatments like radiation or chemo.


This is like an excisional biopsy, described in the section “How are basal and squamous cell cancers found?” The skin is first numbed and then the tumor is cut out, along with some normal skin around it. The remaining skin is carefully stitched back together. This will leave a small scar.

Curettage and electrodesiccation

In this treatment the cancer is removed by scraping it with a long, thin tool called a curette. The area is then treated with an electric needle to destroy any remaining cancer cells. The process is often done more than once. This treatment will leave a small scar.

Mohs surgery

In this surgery, the doctor removes a very thin layer of skin and then checks the sample under a microscope. If cancer cells are seen, more layers of skin will be removed and looked at until the samples do not show cancer cells. This process is slow, often taking several hours, but it means that normal skin next to the tumor can be saved and the skin will look better after surgery.

Lymph node surgery

If lymph nodes near the cancer are growing larger, it could be a sign that the cancer has spread to these nodes. In that case, the nodes will be biopsied (see “How are basal and squamous cell skin cancers found?”), or many nodes might be removed in a more thorough operation called a lymph node dissection. The removed nodes will be looked at under a microscope to see if they contain cancer cells. This operation is more involved than surgery on the skin. You would most likely have general anesthesia (where you are given drugs to put you into a deep sleep).

A possible long-term side effect is lymphedema. Lymph nodes in the groin or under the arm normally help drain fluid from the limbs. If they are removed, fluid may build up, leading to limb swelling. Elastic stockings or compression sleeves can help some people with this problem. For more details, see our document Understanding Lymphedema (for Cancers Other Than Breast Cancer).

Skin grafting and reconstructive surgery

If a large skin cancer has been removed, it may not be possible to stretch the nearby skin enough to stitch the edges of the wound together. In these cases, skin grafts taken from other parts of the body or other methods can help the wound heal and replace tissue. These can also help the treated skin look as normal as possible.

Last Medical Review: 02/24/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2014