What is surgery?

If your melanoma comes back to the original site or close to it, you may have surgery to treat it. This is called a local excision.

A local excision is usually done under local anaesthetic. You may have general anaesthetic if more tissue needs to be removed. The wound can normally be stitched together and your nurse will tell you how to look after it. You will have a scar, but this will become less noticeable in time.

If the wound is too big to stitch, you may need a skin graft. This is when a layer of skin is taken from another part of the body to mend the wound.

A skin flap is thicker than a skin graft and is used when more skin is taken. Skin flap surgery is specialised so you may have to travel to a different hospital and be treated by a plastic surgeon.

You may have to adjust to a change in your appearance. You can talk about this to your hospital team, someone close to you or a trained counsellor.

Surgery for recurrent melanoma

If your melanoma comes back at the original site or very close to it, you may be able to have surgery to remove it. This is called a local excision.

You’ll probably have the surgery under a local anaesthetic in the day surgery unit. Some people may have a general anaesthetic, depending on how much tissue needs to be removed.

The wound can usually be stitched together. Your specialist nurse will talk to you about how to look after the wound area. It will look red and sore at first, but this will gradually get better. Your stitches will be removed 5–14 days later, depending on where the melanoma was. You’ll be left with a scar, which is usually small and becomes less noticeable with time. Occasionally, the wound may be too big to stitch together. In this case, you may need to have a skin graft or a skin flap to mend the wound.

Skin grafts

A skin graft is a layer of skin taken from another part of the body and placed over the area where the melanoma was removed. The place where the skin is taken from is known as the donor site. The place where it is moved to is called the grafted area. The amount of skin that’s taken depends on the area to be covered. Your doctor or specialist nurse will tell you more about this. 

The grafted area

The grafted area may be secured with stitches. You’ll have a dressing over it, which will be left in place while the graft heals. The skin graft will connect with the blood supply from the area. This usually takes 5–7 days. The grafted area will look red and swollen to begin with, but eventually it will heal and the redness will fade.

The donor site

You’ll have a dressing on the donor site to protect it from infection. How long the site takes to heal will depend on how much skin was removed. If the skin was taken from the thigh, buttock or upper arm, it may take up to two weeks to heal. If it was taken from the neck, behind the ears or the inner side of the upper arm, it may only take about five days to heal. The donor site can often feel more uncomfortable than the grafted area. You may need to take regular painkillers for a while.

After skin graft surgery

After a skin graft, it’s usually possible to go home on the same day. Some people need a short stay in hospital depending on where the graft is and how big it is.

Try not to do too much during the first couple of weeks after your skin graft. You’ll need to allow the graft to heal properly. The grafted area will be quite fragile, so it’s important not to put pressure on it or rub or brush against it. Some people may need to take some time off work until it’s healed. If you have children, you may need some extra help at home until you feel able to do the things you normally do.

Your stitches will be removed 5–14 days after your operation. Some people may have stitches that dissolve and don’t need to be removed.

Both the grafted and donor areas will develop scars. These should gradually become less noticeable. There will also be some difference between the grafted skin and the skin surrounding it. This will lessen over time. Your hospital team can tell you more about what to expect.

Skin flaps

A skin flap is a slightly thicker layer of skin than a graft. It’s taken from an area very close to where the melanoma was. The flap is cut away but left partially connected so it still has a blood supply. It’s moved over the wound and stitched in place. If you have a skin flap, you may need to stay in hospital for up to four days.

Skin flap surgery is very specialised. It’s usually done by a plastic surgeon. You may have to travel to a different hospital to have it. If you need a skin flap, your doctor will be able to tell you more about it.

Coping with a change in your appearance

Depending on your surgery, you may have some small scars or you may have larger areas of skin that now look different. Some scars may be more visible, for example on your face.

People cope with changes in appearance differently. Some people may not be very upset by them. Others find these changes harder to cope with or feel very self-conscious. It isn’t always related to the size or visibility of the change – a small, hidden scar can still affect a person’s confidence and sexuality. Everyone is different.

Give yourself time to get used to the changes. You may find you feel better about them after a while. Scars will become less noticeable as time goes on.

Some skin clinics have a make-up specialist who can advise you on the best way to cover up scars. There are also organisations that provide camouflage make-up to cover up scars.

If you’re finding things difficult, it’s important to get support. You may find it helps to talk to your hospital team, someone close to you or a trained counsellor. We have a list of organisations you could contact for help.

We have more information on body image and cancer.

Back to Surgery explained

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.

What happens after surgery?

You’ll be monitored very closely after your operation. You will be very tired so it’s important to rest and look after yourself.