Having tests for melanoma
If there’s any possibility that you have a melanoma, a skin specialist will examine you and tell you whether the mole needs to be tested.
If you’re at all worried about a mole or any new marks on your skin, you should see your GP. They will examine the mole. If they think it might be a melanoma, they’ll urgently send you to see a specialist doctor at the hospital.
Your appointment will be at either a skin clinic or a pigmented lesion clinic (a special clinic for diagnosing melanomas early). You’ll see a skin specialist (dermatologist) or a plastic surgeon. They’re both experienced in treating skin cancers. You might also see a specialist skin cancer nurse for more support.
The specialist you see will examine your mole and ask questions like how long you’ve had it and how it’s changed. Your specialist will be able to tell a lot just by looking at the mole and listening to what you’ve told them. They may look at your mole with a small instrument called a dermatoscope. This gives a bigger and clearer picture of the mole, and it isn’t painful.
If there’s any possibility that it’s a melanoma, your specialist will advise you to have the whole mole removed. This is called an excision biopsy.
Once the mole is removed, the doctors can then examine it under a microscope to find out whether or not it’s a melanoma. This is called a biopsy.
First the doctor will inject a local anaesthetic around the mole. This makes the area go numb, so you won’t feel anything. Then they’ll cut out the mole and a tiny amount of normal skin around it, and close it all up with stitches. The stitches will be removed after a week or two, or they might dissolve by themselves.
You’ll have to go back to the clinic a few weeks later to get the results. If it’s a melanoma, you’ll usually need to have some further surgery.
When melanoma is treated early it’s usually cured.
If melanoma spreads, it usually goes to the lymph nodes closest to the melanoma. But this doesn’t happen with most melanomas.
You may have a CT scan or MRI scans to check whether melanoma has gone to other parts of the body.
Tests to check the lymph nodes
Lymph nodes help us fight infection and disease. They’re small and bean-shaped, and there are groups of them throughout the body. They’re connected to each other by a network of tiny tubes that carry a fluid called lymph .
Your specialist might suggest that you have tests if:
- the lymph nodes nearest to the melanoma look or feel swollen
- you’ve had treatment and are at risk of the melanoma coming back.
Fine needle aspiration (FNA)
The doctor gently puts a fine needle, with a syringe attached, into the lymph node and takes a little fluid. It’s a quick test and can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s over quickly.
The fluid is then examined under a microscope to see whether there are any cancer cells.
An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to build up a picture of the lymph nodes and the area around them.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB)
When fluid drains from the area of the melanoma, the sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node it drains to. You’ll usually have an SLNB at the same time as having surgery to treat the melanoma.
To find the sentinel node(s), the doctor injects a tiny amount of harmless radioactive liquid near the area of the melanoma and injects a blue dye. Any lymph nodes that show up on an x-ray as a bit radioactive or blue are the sentinel node(s). The surgeon removes them through a small cut in your skin, and they’re sent to a lab to be checked for cancer cells. If there aren’t any cancer cells in the sentinel node(s), the other lymph nodes are usually always okay.
If you need any of these tests, your specialist or skin nurse will tell you more about them.
If the tests are positive, your specialist will usually suggest an operation to remove all the lymph nodes in that area (called a lymph node dissection).
For information about surgery for people of all ages, see our general surgery section.
Waiting for test resultsBack to top
Waiting for test results can be scary. Remember that you don’t have to keep your worries to yourself. Talking about how you feel and getting support from family, friends or your specialist nurse and doctor can make it a bit easier. You could also talk to a cancer support specialist on our free helpline.
This information is about having tests for melanoma. We also have more information about:
If you're looking for information about melanoma in people of all ages, please see our general melanoma section.