Being diagnosed with skin cancer

Your GP will examine you and decide whether to refer you to a specialist at the hospital for further tests. Sometimes a specially trained GP will be able to remove the affected area. But most people are referred to a skin specialist at the local hospital. This doctor is called a dermatologist.

The dermatologist will examine the affected area of skin. They may need to take a tissue sample called a biopsy. This is a simple procedure done in the outpatient department using local anaesthetic. The tissue sample will be looked at under a microscope by a specialist.

If you have a basal cell carcinoma, you probably won’t need any further tests. This is because it usually doesn’t spread as long as the cancer was completely removed. If you have a squamous cell carcinoma or if you’ve already had treatment for skin cancer and it has returned, you may need further tests and scans. Your doctor will explain any other tests to you.

Waiting for test results can be difficult. You may want to talk to someone close to you or one of our cancer support specialists.

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.


Biopsy

The dermatologist will be able to learn a lot 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. There it will be examined under a microscope by a pathologist.


Further tests

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 take 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 sample some 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

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 one of the organisations listed on our database, can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.