Melanoma surgery is a fairly minor procedure that can completely cure early stage melanoma. There are minimal risks, and recovery is typically quick.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can develop in your skin’s melanocyte cells. It’s much less common than other types of skin cancer, but it’s more aggressive and more likely to spread throughout your body.
The primary treatment for early stage melanoma is surgery, and the surgery is very successful when doctors diagnose melanoma in the early stages.
During the procedure, a surgeon will completely remove the melanoma tumor. Melanoma surgery is typically a simple and relatively minor procedure that can usually be completed in a doctor’s office within 1–2 hours. Recovery is often quick, and there are very few risks.
There are a few types of surgery you might have if you’ve received a melanoma diagnosis.
The most common surgery for melanoma, especially in the early stages, is called a wide excision or wide local excision. This is a fairly minor procedure that is typically performed in an outpatient setting. You might even be able to have it done in a doctor’s office instead of a surgical center or hospital.
It’s normally performed under local anesthesia. This means you’ll be awake, but the surgeon will numb the area of your skin where the melanoma has developed to prevent you from feeling any pain during the removal. You’ll be able to go home once the surgery is complete.
Depending on your doctor and on the size and location of your melanoma, you might undergo other types of surgery, such as:
- Sentinel lymph node biopsy: A lymph node biopsy involves removing the melanoma along with the lymph nodes that melanoma often spreads to first. Your doctor might suggest this if they believe your cancer might have spread.
- Mohs surgery: This type of surgery is more commonly performed for other types of skin cancer, but some doctors may recommend it for melanoma. Mohs surgery involves removing thin layers of skin, one by one, until no cancer cells remain.
- Amputation: Rarely, complete removal of a body part, such as a finger or toe, might be necessary to ensure that no cancer cells remain.
For a wide excision, the surgeon will first numb the area with a local anesthetic.
They will then make an incision around the melanoma tumor to cut it out. They will also cut away a 2-centimeter area (margin) of skin around the tumor to ensure that all the cancer cells are removed.
Finally, they will stitch the excision back together.
How long does melanoma surgery take?
The surgery often takes just a couple of hours from start to finish.
However, the exact time a surgery will take depends on a few factors, such as the size and location of your tumor and the facility where you have surgery.
Since a wide excision is typically a simple outpatient procedure, it is often relatively quick, taking 1–2 hours.
You’ll receive local anesthesia for melanoma surgery.
The anesthetic will sometimes burn and sting when injected, but then that area of your skin will be numb. You will feel only pressure or nothing at all for the rest of the procedure.
The area might be sore for a few days after surgery, but you can manage the pain with over-the-counter pain relievers, ice, and rest.
Melanoma surgery is a minor procedure, but all surgeries have some risks. The risks of wide excision for melanoma include:
- bruising around the excision site
- swelling around the excision site
- infection of the excision site
- scarring at the excision site
- nerve pain, tingling, or numbness
- bleeding from the excision site
Typically, these symptoms are mild and fade with time.
The scar from excision surgery for melanoma is likely to be permanent, but many people find that it fades with time and becomes less noticeable.
You can discuss with your doctor any potential side effects, especially those that could linger after surgery or be difficult to manage.
Wide excision surgery can completely cure early stage melanoma and is often successful in later stages as well.
- 94% for all stages of melanoma combined
- more than 99% for early stage melanoma that has not spread
- 71% for melanoma that has spread to regional areas, such as nearby lymph nodes
You can read more about melanoma survival rates and stories here.
The exact recovery timetable for your wide excision melanoma surgery will depend on the location and size of your melanoma tumor.
However, recovery is typically quick. Your surgeon will give you an approximate timeline for your recovery and return to activities.
Since melanoma surgeries are larger and more involved than typical surgeries, people will typically need to take a couple days to recover.
You might be able to return to work, school, or other daily activities after that initial recovery time frame. You may need pain relievers, such as Tylenol, to manage any pain. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to care for the excision as it heals.
Surgery is typically the primary treatment for early stage melanoma. Removing the tumor can completely cure melanoma.
The surgery is often a simple procedure called a wide excision that involves numbing the area and then cutting into the skin. The surgeon will remove the tumor and a margin of skin around it and then stitch the excision closed. This is an outpatient procedure that has a short recovery timeline and very few risks.
The exact surgery you’ll need and the exact time your procedure will take depends on the size and location of your melanoma tumor. Your doctor can help you understand what’s necessary for your specific tumor.