Skin grafts and skin flaps

If the skin cancer is large or has spread, you may need to have a skin graft or a skin flap.

A skin graft is when a layer of skin is taken from a different part of the body (donor site) to cover the area where the cancer was removed. After a skin graft, you can usually go home on the same day but some people need to stay in hospital. It is important to not put pressure on the grafted area to allow it to heal properly. You may need to take some time off work or get some extra help at home. Both the donor site and the grafted area will have scars.

A skin flap is a thicker layer of skin taken from an area close to where the skin cancer was removed. The skin is cut away but left partly connected so it has a blood supply. The skin is moved to cover the wound and stitched in place. This is specialist surgery.

If you need a skin graft or skin flap, your doctor will explain the operation to you.

Skin grafts and skin flaps

If the cancer is large or spreading, a larger area of skin may need to be removed to cover the wound. You may need a skin graft or, less commonly, a skin flap.


Skin grafts

A skin graft is a layer of skin taken from another part of the body and placed over the area where the skin cancer 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 is taken depends on the size of the area to be covered. Your doctor or specialist nurse will tell you more about this.

The donor site

You will 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 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.

The grafted area

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

After skin graft surgery

After a skin graft, you can usually go home on the same day. Some people need a short stay in hospital depending on where the graft is on the body and how big it is.

Try not to do too much during the first couple of weeks after surgery. You will need to allow the graft to heal properly. The grafted area will be quite fragile. It is 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 has healed. If you have young 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 to 14 days after your operation. Some people may have stitches that dissolve and do not 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 how the grafted skin and the skin surrounding it looks. 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, which is taken from an area very close to the wound where the cancer has been removed. The flap is cut away, but left partly connected so it still has a blood supply. It is moved over the wound and stitched in place. If you have a skin flap, you may need to stay in hospital for a few days.

Skin flap surgery is very specialised. A plastic surgeon usually does it. 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.

Back to Surgery

Surgery for skin cancer

Surgery is the most common treatment for skin cancer. The type of operation depends on the size and position of the cancer.

Who might I meet?

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