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. Depending on the area of the body affected and the type of treatment needed, you may also be referred to a:
The dermatologist will be able to tell a great deal from a simple examination of the affected area of skin, possibly using an instrument called a dermatoscope. However, it’s not always possible to tell the difference between skin cancers and benign (non-cancerous) conditions by examination alone, so you may be advised to have a tissue sample (biopsy) done.
This is a quick and simple procedure, which can usually 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 where 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 (recurred). During the physical examination, your doctor will probably 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 sample some of the nearby lymph nodes if they think there’s a risk that the cancer has spread to them. Very occasionally, ultrasound, CT or MRI scans are done if your doctor thinks there’s a possibility that the cancer has begun to spread. These scans are not usually needed when you are first diagnosed. Your doctor will explain these tests to you if necessary.
It may take 1-2 weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. Waiting for your results can be a difficult time. It may help to talk things over with a relative or close friend. You may want to call our cancer support specialists, or contact other support organisations.