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When You're Diagnosed with Skin Cancer

Written by Dr. Alison Durham, U-M Rogel Cancer Center Skin Cancer Program.

doctor examining patient's skin

At some point in their life, one in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer. The most common types are:

  • basal cell carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • melanoma

You can limit your lifetime risk of developing skin cancer by using sun safety and UV prevention tactics. Because early detection is important for every type of skin cancer, pay attention to changes in your skin and consult your doctor or dermatologist for anything suspicious.

The first step in treating skin cancer is proper diagnosis. This requires your doctor to remove a small tissue sample (a biopsy) from the suspected site. When done at Michigan Medicine, a specially trained dermatopathologist examines the biopsy to determine if cancer is present and if so what type.

When your skin cancer is biopsy-confirmed, your dermatologist will recommend the treatment options best suited to your skin cancer type based on the location, size, and features noted on the biopsy specimen. Most skin cancer treatment is done on an outpatient basis, typically by one of the following three methods:

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  • Mohs micrographic surgery
    For many non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the preferred treatment option is Mohs surgery. In this precise procedure, a small disc of tissue is removed around the skin cancer and prepared for immediate microscopic evaluation. The Mohs surgeon checks all of the edges of what was removed for cancer cells, while the patient waits. Once the edges are cancer-free, the wound is repaired. The goal of Mohs surgery is to provide a high cure rate and to remove the cancer while leaving as much normal, healthy skin behind as possible.
  • Wide-local excision
    The doctor excises (surgically removes) the entire skin cancer together with a safe border of surrounding normal skin.
  • Electrodessication and Curettage (ED&C)
    For superficial non-melanoma skin cancers, ED&C provides high cure rates with minimal scarring. Because cancer cells scrape away more easily than normal tissue, a trained dermatologist can scrape away the cancerous cells using a tool called a curette and leave only normal skin behind.

Our multidisciplinary skin cancer program provides exceptional care to all skin cancer patients. We are world-leaders in the advanced treatment of skin cancer and offer specialized clinics for patients with melanoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, non-melanoma skin cancer, as well as other rarer forms of skin cancer. If you have been diagnosed with a skin cancer and are seeking treatment options, please contact 1-800-221-8181 for more information; or visit our skin cancer program web pages.

Learn more about skin cancer and prevention:

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