Diagnosing skin cancer


If you have a change on the skin, your doctor must find out whether it's due to cancer or to some other cause.

Your doctor will remove all or part of the area that doesn't look normal. The sample goes to a lab, where a pathologist checks the sample under a microscope. This is called a biopsy - the only sure way to diagnose skin cancer.

You may have the biopsy in a doctor's office or as an outpatient in a clinic or hospital. Where it's done depends on the size and place of the abnormal area on your skin. You probably will have local anaesthesia.

There are four common types of skin biopsies:

- Punch biopsy: The doctor uses a sharp, hollow tool to remove a circle of tissue from the abnormal area.
- Incisional biopsy: The doctor uses a scalpel to remove part of the growth.
- Excisional biopsy: The doctor uses a scalpel to remove the entire growth and some tissue around it.
- Shave biopsy: The doctor uses a thin, sharp blade to shave off the abnormal growth.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having a biopsy:

- Which type of biopsy do you recommend for me?
- How will the biopsy be done?
- Will I have to go to the hospital?
- How long will it take?
- Will I be awake?
- Will it hurt?
- Are there any risks?
- What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the biopsy?
- What will my scar look like?
- How soon will I know the results? Who will explain them to me?

Are you at risk of skin cancer? Then your doctor may recommend that you do a regular skin self-examination.

If he/she has taken photos of your skin, comparing your skin to the photos can help you check for changes.

The best time to do a skin self-examination is after a shower or bath. You should check your skin in a well-lighted room using a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror. It's best to begin by learning where your birthmarks, moles, and blemishes are and what they usually look and feel like.

Check for anything new:

- A new mole (that looks abnormal)

- A change in the size, shape, colour or texture of a mole 

- A sore that does not heal

Check yourself from head to toe. Don't forget to check all areas of the skin, including the back, the scalp, between the buttocks, and the genital area:

- Look at your face, neck, ears and scalp. You may want to use a comb or a blow dryer to move your hair so that you can see better. You also may want to have a relative or friend check through your hair because this is difficult to do yourself.
- Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror, then raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.
- Bend your elbows and look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms (including the undersides) and upper arms.
- Examine the back, front and sides of your legs. Also look between your buttocks and around your genital area.
- Sit and closely examine your feet, including the toenails, the soles, and the spaces between the toes.

By checking your skin regularly, you will become familiar with what is normal for you. It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin examinations and to write notes about the way your skin looks. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor right away.

Read more:

What is skin cancer?

Symptoms of skin cancer

Preventing skin cancer

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