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Being diagnosed with skin cancer

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

The dermatologist will examine the affected area of skin. They may need to take a tissue sample – this is called a biopsy. The doctor numbs the skin using a local anaesthetic and then removes part or all of the affected area. 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 if 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.

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

If you have symptoms, you will usually begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you. If they think your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a hospital for specialist advice 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. A doctor who specialises in treating skin diseases is called a dermatologist.

Your GP will decide how quickly you need to see the specialist after looking at your symptoms. This will be based on their experience and national guidelines. If they think you have an SCC, you will usually see the specialist within two weeks. This is the usual waiting time for cancer of this type.

If your GP suspects that you have a BCC, you will usually be seen within 18 weeks. This is because nearly all BCCs are slow-growing and unlikely to change during this time. Sometimes, your GP may refer you to see the specialist within two weeks for a BCC if they think you need to be seen sooner. Your GP can explain the referral process to you.


At the hospital

The dermatologist will examine the affected area of skin. They will also ask you questions about how long you have had it and any changes you have noticed. They will be able to learn a lot from a simple examination. They may use an instrument called a dermatoscope. This looks like a magnifying glass with a light. Your doctor will usually also check the rest of your skin to see if you have any other unusual areas.


Biopsy

It is 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 sample of tissue taken (biopsy). This is a simple procedure which you can have in the outpatient department. The doctor will give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area. Then they will remove all or part of the affected area and send it to the laboratory. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (pathologist) will then look at it under a microscope.


Further tests

If you have a BCC, you probably won’t need any further tests as long as the cancer has been completely removed. This is because BCCs almost never spread.

If you have an SCC, your doctor may want to check the rest of your body. This is to make sure that you do not need any further treatment, as SCCs can occasionally spread.

Further tests are particularly important if you have had treatment for skin cancer before and it has come back. During the tests, your doctor may feel the lymph nodes close to the cancer to check whether any of them are enlarged.

Rarely, your doctor may recommend that you have an operation to take samples of the nearby lymph nodes if they think the cancer may have spread there.

Very occasionally, you may have some scans if your doctor thinks that the cancer may have started to spread. These can include:

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 can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

Back to Diagnosing

Causes and risk factors

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