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Skin Cancers Diagnosis & Treatment

If you have skin cancer, it’s reassuring to know that recently developed treatments are available, providing a better chance for a cure and improving your quality of life. At Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, our dermatologists and other skin cancer specialists use the latest, most advanced therapies for treating skin cancer.

Skin cancer screening and diagnosis

Although skin cancers are the most common type of cancer in the United States, they’re highly curable if they’re detected early through regular screening. The three most common skin cancers are:

  1. Basal cell carcinoma
  2. Squamous cell carcinoma
  3. Melanoma

At Virginia Mason Franciscan Health Cancer Care, we’re committed to improving the health of people throughout our local communities. That’s why we offer skin cancer screenings in our hospitals and clinics, and several free screenings for underserved people in local communities. Ask your provider for more information about skin cancer screenings.

If your doctor thinks a suspicious area might be skin cancer, he or she will remove the area (or part of it) for further testing (biopsy). If the biopsy removes the entire tumor, you may not need any further treatment.

A definitive diagnosis of melanoma is made with an excisional biopsy that removes the mole and a margin of tissue surrounding it, or with a “punch” biopsy of the thickest part of the mole if it’s large or in a difficult anatomical area to reach. The biopsy sample, along with other tests and procedures, allows the pathologist to determine the stage of disease, upon which treatment decisions are then made.

Skin cancer treatment

Fortunately, if you’ve been diagnosed with basal or squamous cell skin cancer or precancer, they’re typically cured with fairly minor surgery or other types of local treatments. 

Your cancer specialist may recommend other treatments in addition to or instead of surgery, depending on the type and stage of your skin cancer. Using a team approach, experts from several specialties will work together to design a personalized treatment plan specifically for your individual case, which may include one or more of the following:

  • Chemotherapy, which works to remove, kill or damage cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink  tumors
  • Targeted therapies, which use antibodies that target specific molecules within cancer cells

Melanoma cancer treatment

Treatment options for people with melanoma will depend on the stage of disease and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other organs. Surgery is the mainstay of treatment to remove the tumor.

When cancer is caught at an early stage, your surgeon will perform a wide local excision that removes both the tumor and a margin of tissue around it. Depending on the specific features of your melanoma, your surgeon may also want to test the lymph nodes near the tumor site for signs of cancer. Usually, a sentinel lymph node biopsy is performed that removes the node or nodes where cancer is most likely to spread first. If cancer is present in these lymph nodes, your surgeon may want to remove additional lymph nodes, usually during another scheduled surgery.

Sometimes extensive surgery for melanoma may require reconstructive surgery to close the site. Virginia Mason Franciscan Health plastic surgeons perform a high volume of surgeries for patients with melanoma, with excellent outcomes.

People who’ve had a primary melanoma are at greater risk for a second primary melanoma. For this reason, individuals are generally followed closely by their dermatologist and oncologist, as well as by their primary care provider, after the initial cancer treatment. Treatment for recurrent melanoma may involve surgery, specialized medical therapy and sometimes radiation therapy.

Treatment for metastatic melanoma

When melanoma metastasizes, it may spread not only into lymph nodes but also to internal organs, including the liver, lungs, colon, brain or bones. Surgery may be an option in some cases. A number of other therapies are available to help control the spread of cancer and relieve the symptoms of treatment.

  • Immunotherapy describes specialized medical therapy that boosts the immune system to help the body recognize and fight melanoma.
  • Targeted therapy describes the use of drugs that target the parts of melanoma cells that make them different from normal cells in the body. Genetic testing of melanoma cells that are removed can help to identify which specific targeted therapies might work best for a person’s melanoma.
  • Radiation therapy may help by shrinking tumors or treating areas that are at high risk for recurrence after initial treatment. A course of radiation therapy may be given over several days using external beam radiation. There are several types of external beam radiation therapy, most of which use computer analysis to identify, measure and target the tumor, thus sparing healthy surrounding tissue.

Skin cancer second opinions

If you’ve been diagnosed with skin cancer, learn more about second opinions and how they may help you find all your available treatment options.

Skin cancer research and clinical trials

Virginia Mason Franciscan Health is a leader in cancer research. Learn more about research and clinical trial options. 

Skin cancer wellness and support

Cancer treatment includes more than just treating physical symptoms. Learn more about our comprehensive wellness and support services. 

Skin cancer specialists

To learn more about skin cancer or to make an appointment, find a specialist near you.