How skin cancers are diagnosed
Usually you’ll begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you and decide whether to refer you to a hospital specialist for further tests and treatment.
In certain situations, a specially trained GP may be able to remove the affected area. However, most people with suspected skin cancer are referred to a specialist at their local hospital for advice and treatment. A doctor who specialises in treating skin diseases is called a dermatologist.
The dermatologist will be able to tell a great deal from a simple examination of the affected area of skin. They may use an instrument called a dermatoscope.
However, it’s not always possible to tell the difference between skin cancers and benign (non-cancerous) conditions just by examining the skin. The doctors may advise you to have a tissue sample (biopsy). This is a simple procedure, which can be done in the outpatient department using a local anaesthetic. The doctor will remove all or part of the affected area and send it to the laboratory. It will be examined under a microscope by a pathologist.
If you have a basal cell carcinoma, you probably won’t need any further tests as long as the cancer has been completely removed. This is because basal cell carcinomas almost never spread.
If you have a squamous cell carcinoma, your doctor may want to examine you all over as well as taking a biopsy. This is to make sure that you don’t need any further treatment, as squamous cell carcinomas can occasionally spread.
Further tests are particularly important if you’ve had treatment for skin cancer before and it has come back. During the physical examination, your doctor may feel the lymph nodes close to the cancer to see if any of them are enlarged.
Rarely, your doctor may recommend that you have an operation to take biopsies of the nearby lymph nodes if they think the cancer may have spread there. Very occasionally, you might have ultrasound, CT or MRI scans if your doctor thinks there’s a possibility that the cancer has started to spread. These scans are not usually needed when you are first diagnosed. Your doctor will explain these tests to you.
Waiting for test results
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Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse or support organisations can also provide support. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists.
Hear from a superintendent radiographer in CT, and Jyoti, a CT scan patient, about what to expect when having a CT scan.