Surgery is a common treatment for basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. Different surgical techniques can be used. The options depend on the type of skin cancer, how large the cancer is, where it is on the body, and other factors. Most often the surgery can be done in a doctor’s office or hospital clinic using a local anesthetic (numbing medicine). For skin cancers with a high risk of spreading, surgery sometimes will be followed by other treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy.
This is similar to an excisional biopsy (see Tests for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancer), but in this case the diagnosis is already known. For this procedure, the skin is first numbed with a local anesthetic. The tumor is then cut out with a surgical knife, along with some surrounding normal skin. Most often, the remaining skin is then carefully stitched back together. This type of surgery will leave a scar.
In this treatment, the doctor removes the cancer by scraping it with a long, thin instrument with a sharp looped edge on one end (called a curette). The area is then treated with an electric needle (electrode) to destroy any remaining cancer cells. This process is often repeated once or twice during the same office visit. Curettage and electrodesiccation is a good treatment for superficial (confined to the top layer of skin) basal cell and squamous cell cancers. It will leave a scar.
Mohs surgery (also known as Mohs micrographic surgery, or MMS) is sometimes used when there is a high risk the skin cancer will come back after treatment, when the extent of the skin cancer is not known, or when the goal is to save as much healthy skin as possible, such as with cancers near the eye or other critical areas such as the central part of the face, the ears, or fingers.
The Mohs procedure is done by a surgeon with special training. First, the surgeon removes a very thin layer of the skin (including the tumor) and then checks the removed sample under a microscope. If cancer cells are seen, another layer is removed and examined. This is repeated until the skin samples are free of cancer cells. This is a slow process, often taking several hours, but it means that more normal skin near the tumor can be saved. This can help the area look better after surgery.
Mohs often results in better outcomes than some other forms of surgery and other treatments. But it’s also usually more complex and time-consuming than other methods. In recent years, skin cancer experts have developed guidelines for when it’s best to use this technique based on the type and size of skin cancer, where it is on the body, and other important features.
If lymph nodes near a squamous or basal cell skin cancer are enlarged, the doctor might biopsy them to check for cancer cells (see Tests for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancer).
Sometimes, many nodes might be removed in a more extensive operation called a lymph node dissection. The nodes are then looked at under a microscope for signs of cancer. This type of operation is more extensive than surgery on the skin and is usually done while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep).
Lymphedema, a condition in which excess fluid collects in the legs or arms, is a possible long-term side effect of a lymph node dissection. If it’s severe enough, it can cause skin problems and an increased risk of infections in the limb. Talk to your doctor about your risk of lymphedema. It’s important to know what to watch for, and to take the steps to help reduce your risk.
After surgery to remove a large basal or squamous cell skin cancer, it may not be possible to stretch the nearby skin enough to stitch the edges of the wound together. In these cases, healthy skin can be taken from another part of the body and grafted over the wound to help it heal and to restore the appearance of the affected area. Other reconstructive surgical procedures, such as moving 'flaps' of nearby skin over the wound, can also be helpful in some cases.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Christensen SR, Wilson LD, Leffell DJ. Chapter 90: Cancer of the Skin. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Basal Cell Skin Cancer. Version 1.2019. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/nmsc.pdf on June 4, 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Squamous Cell Skin Cancer. Version 2.2019. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/squamous.pdf on June 4, 2019.
Xu YG, Aylward JL, Swanson AM, et al. Chapter 67: Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
Last Revised: July 26, 2019
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