Melanoma is the malignant transformation of the melanocytes within the skin. Melanomas occur most commonly on sun exposed areas including the face, scalp, nail beds, back, and extremity skin.
Surgical management is critical for diagnosis, staging, and treatment of melanoma. The goals of surgery include:
Based on the staging, the procedure may consist of only wide local excision or extend to involve lymph node biopsy or dissection.
If a melanoma is suspected, a full thickness biopsy of the lesion is required for diagnosis and surgical planning. Based on the biopsy result, lesions are clinically staged according to their thickness and the presence of regional lymph node involvement or lymphatic metastases on clinical exam or imaging. The thickness of the melanoma is a key factor in determining the clinical stage of the lesion and the recommended margin of normal tissue to resect (see Table 1)
Tumor Category (Breslow thickness)
Melanoma in situ
0.5 to 1 cm margin
T1 (≤1.0 mm)
1 cm margin
T2 (>1 to 2 mm)
1 to 2 cm margin
T3/T4 (>2 to 4/>4 mm)
2 cm margin
Table 1. Resection margins based on tumor category (TNM staging system).1
The surgical approach varies based on the location of the lesion. Most excisions are performed using an elliptical incision which facilitates straight-line closure along natural tension lines. The required margin is measured in the short axis of the ellipse and is typically excised down to the muscle fascia. The specimen is excised and removed, and oriented for pathological evaluation.
Sentinel lymph node biopsies provide diagnostic information important for further treatment decisions. They are typically performed for patients with melanomas at intermediate or high risk for lymph node metastasis including melanomas greater than 0.8 mm thick (T1b-4), and melanomas less than 0.8 mm thick but with ulceration (T1b)2. For positive sentinel node biopsies, complete lymph node dissection may be required.
Layers of the skin down to the fascia of the underlying muscle belly.