Skin Cancer Services

The University of Chicago Medicine aims to treat melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers aggressively while minimizing the impact of treatment, such as scarring, on a patient's healthy skin.

The Critical Role of Surgery

Surgery plays a major role in skin cancer treatment. It may involve removing the cancerous area and a small amount of normal tissue to help prevent the cancer from recurring.

More advanced surgery may be indicated for some people with skin cancer. These options include:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy, which doctors can use to identify and remove lymph nodes where cancer has spread. During this procedure, a surgeon injects a radioactive substance at the site of the melanoma to determine if lymph nodes are involved and if they need to be removed. Patients who have a sentinel lymph node biopsy instead of a standard lymph node dissection (in which all of the lymph nodes of an area are removed) experience less pain and fewer complications.
  • Isolated limb perfusion, a highly specialized surgery during which the blood flow to an arm or leg is "shut off" from the rest of the body. This allows doctors to deliver chemotherapy to the area for a brief period of time at very high doses without harming tissues in other parts of the body.
  • Mohs micrographic surgery, a precise outpatient procedure that excises certain types of skin cancer in several stages. As layers of cancerous tissue are removed, the surgeon examines each layer for the presence of cancer cells under the microscope. Subsequently only areas with cancer cells present are removed and examined again under the microscope. The process is repeated until no cancer cells are present. This procedure is most often recommended for the face, head and neck (where preservation of normal skin is essential to the best cosmetic outcome) as well as for recurrent and aggressive skin cancers on the rest of the body.

Other Therapies for Skin Cancer

Many patients with early stage melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers may only need surgery. But others with more advanced disease may require surgery plus other therapies:

Radiation

Radiation therapy is sometimes used in the treatment of skin cancer to control symptoms in an involved area or to treat tumors that have spread to the brain.

Chemotherapy

The latest chemotherapy medicines for skin cancer are available from medical oncologists at the University of Chicago.

Our doctors are currently studying a number of other treatments for melanoma. These include novel melanoma vaccines, gene therapy approaches, and new drugs that act on specific molecular targets. Another strategy is combining chemotherapy drugs with substances that boost the body's disease-fighting immune system.

Preventing Future Cancers

Detecting the subtle changes in skin that occur before cancer is another priority for our doctors. Through “mole mapping,” doctors can use digital photography to track a patient's skin changes over time.

This can help prevent skin cancer or uncover very early stage cancer, which has the highest cure rate.