Surgery for melanoma

Surgery to remove the mole is the main treatment for early melanoma, and it can also be the only treatment you need.

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Wide local excision

Even though the excision biopsy to diagnose melanoma often removes the melanoma, a doctor or surgeon may also do a procedure called wide local excision. This means removing more normal-looking skin from around the melanoma (wider margin).

Removing more tissue around the melanoma reduces the risk of it coming back (recurring) at that site. In the latest melanoma guidelines, it is recommended that the margin is usually between 5 mm and 1 cm, depending on the type, thickness and site of the melanoma. For thicker tumours, a wider margin of up to 2 cm may be advised.

A wide local excision is often performed as a day procedure using a local anaesthetic. This means you can go home soon after the surgery, provided there are no complications. People with a melanoma thicker than 1 mm will usually be offered a sentinel lymph node biopsy  at the same time.

For more on this, see Surgery.

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Repairing the wound

Most people will be able to have the wound closed with stitches. You will have a scar but this will become less noticeable with time.

If a large area of skin is removed, the wound may be too big to close with stitches. In this case, the surgeon may repair it using skin from another part of your body. This can be done in two ways:

Skin flap – nearby skin and fatty tissue are lifted and moved over the wound from the edges and stitched.

Skin graft – a layer of skin is taken from another part of your body (usually the thigh or neck) and placed over the area where the melanoma was removed. The skin grows back quickly over a few weeks.

The decision about whether to do a skin flap or graft will depend on many factors, such as where the melanoma is, how much tissue has been removed and your general health. In either case, the wound will be covered with a dressing. After several days, it will be checked to see if the wound is healing properly. If you had a skin graft, you will also have dressings on any area that had skin removed for the graft.

What to expect after surgery

Pain relief

The area around the wide local excision may feel tight and tender for a few days. Your doctor will prescribe painkillers if necessary. If you have a skin graft, the area that had skin removed may look red and raw immediately after the operation. Over a few weeks, this area will heal and the redness will fade.

Recovery time

The time it takes to recover will vary depending on the thickness of the melanoma and the extent of the surgery required. Most people recover in a week or two. Ask your doctor how long you should wait before returning to your usual exercise activities.

Wound care

Your medical team will tell you how to keep the wound clean to prevent it from becoming infected. Occasionally, the original skin flap or graft doesn’t heal and a new one is required.

When to seek advice

Talk to your doctor about any side effects such as bleeding, bruising, infection, scarring or numbness you may have after surgery.

Video: What is surgery?

Watch this short video to learn more about surgery.

This information was last reviewed in January 2019
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