Treating Melanoma: How Skin Cancer Surgery Can Save Your Life
Long-awaited relief from what felt like an eternal winter is finally here, and it’s time to get out and about in the sunshine again. It’s the season of outdoor street festivals, backyard BBQs and happy hour locations with abundant outdoor seating.
As summer approaches, doctors are reminding everyone to keep skin health top-of-mind when their bodies are being exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Exposure to UV radiation, whether from the sun or from the artificial sunlight of tanning beds, is a major risk factor for developing melanoma skin cancer.
“It’s easy to forget to grab your hat and sunscreen when the warm weather is calling, but melanoma affects people of all ages, skin colors and genders,” says Andrea Porpiglia, M.D., M.S., a surgeon at Crozer-Keystone Health System. “While melanoma accounts for a small percentage of skin cancers, it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths.”
Melanoma Can Be Treated
More than 91,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
The good news is that melanoma is treatable. If you are able to get an early diagnosis, it can often be corrected with surgery alone. Here are some of the surgical procedures available to treat melanoma. Of course, you’ll want to speak directly with your doctor to find the treatment best suited for you.
- Wide local incision. Most type of thin melanomas can be cured with this type of minor operation that does not require a hospital stay or further treatment.
Doctors use local anesthesia to numb the site of the tumor for removal. They’ll not only remove the tumor, but a small amount of surrounding skin called “the margin.” The sample will be examined to ensure a large enough area was taken to remove all cancer cells.
“We see this type of surgery when the cancer has not spread deeply into the skin,” says Porpiglia.
- Layer-by-layer. Some surgeons or dermatologists may choose to remove the tumor in very thin layers, a process referred to as Mohs surgery. The skin is removed and examined layer-by-layer until there are no signs of cancer cells remaining.
According to the American Cancer Society, this type of surgery is used more often for some other types of skin cancer, and not all doctors agree it should be used to treat melanoma. Your doctor will know if this is an appropriate treatment for you depending on the size and site of your melanoma.
- Getting below the surface. Your doctor may want to take a closer look at lymph nodes surrounding your tumor to see if the cancer has spread to these nearby sites. They can examine your nodes with either a physical examination or by imaging tests, depending on the location in your body.
Depending on the depth of the melanoma, some patients require a lymph node biopsy at time of excision. Patients who have lymph nodes that are abnormally large or hard, a biopsy will be done to test for cancer prior to surgery. Depending on biopsy results, your doctor may advise lymph node dissection to remove the trouble areas and will advise you of the side effects and risks surrounding that procedure.
Protect Yourself From Melanoma
“While melanoma doesn’t discriminate against who it affects, there are plenty of steps people can take to protect their skin,” says Porpiglia. “Ideally, we want to see patients be proactive in protecting their skin before there are any problems.”
Porpiglia recommends using sunscreen with SPF of at least 30 throughout the day, seeking shade especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., wearing protective clothing and avoiding UV tanning beds.
And remember, examine your skin head-to-toe every month and make an annual professional skin exam with your doctor to check for signs of melanoma.