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Surgery for squamous cell skin cancer

BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for people who have squamous cell skin cancer. It tells you about surgery, a treatment used for this cancer.

Does it work?

Yes. If you have squamous cell skin cancer, you'll need surgery to remove it. This has been the standard treatment for many years. It helps stop the cancer spreading and increases your chance of being cured.

Your operation

During the operation, your doctor will cut away your skin cancer and some of the tissue around it to try to remove all of the cancer cells. You won't usually have to stay in hospital to have your skin cancer removed. The operation might be done at your local hospital, or by a specialist at your local clinic. [42]

  • Before your operation, you'll get an injection to numb the area near your skin cancer so you won't feel anything (a local anaesthetic).

  • Your doctor will cut out the tumour together with some of your healthy-looking skin around it. This is called taking a margin. Your doctor takes away some of your tissue from around the cancer to make sure all the cancer cells are gone. [43]

One of the biggest questions doctors face is: how much healthy tissue should be removed? Unfortunately, there hasn't been much research to answer this question. Doctors usually take out between 4 millimetres and 10 millimetres (between 1/6 of an inch and 1/2 of an inch) of healthy tissue from around the cancer.

Some doctors may advise you to have a special type of surgery called Mohs surgery (also called Mohs micrographic surgery). This operation takes longer but removes less tissue.

  • During the operation, your doctor carefully takes out thin layers of tissue one by one, until the tumour is gone. Each layer is checked under a microscope to make sure there aren't any cancer cells left.

  • The idea is that your doctor will remove as little healthy tissue as possible but will still get all of the cancer.

To learn more, see Mohs micrographic surgery.

Closing your wound

After the operation, your doctor will close your wound with stitches, if needed. This step is usually very simple, and you'll be left with just a small scar after your stitches are gone.

If your cancer is large:

  • You may need to have it removed by a more specialised doctor, such as a plastic surgeon

  • Your wound may be closed in a different way; your surgeon may need to pull a flap of nearby skin over your wound.

Occasionally, surgeons have to use a skin graft. When you have a skin graft, skin is taken from another part of your body and stitched over your wound. You'll probably have a bigger scar if you have a skin graft. And you'll also have a scar in the place where the graft came from.

Your wound will probably heal in about two weeks.

Last Updated: June 21, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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