Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer: Diagnosis
How is nonmelanoma skin cancer diagnosed?
Diagnosing skin cancer starts with checking out a bump, spot, or other mark on your
skin. Any area of skin that doesn’t look normal and may have disease is called a lesion.
You may need to see a dermatologist. This is a doctor with special training in diagnosing
and treating skin problems.
If your healthcare provider thinks you might have nonmelanoma skin cancer, you will
need certain exams and tests to be sure. Diagnosing skin cancer starts with your healthcare
provider asking you questions. He or she will ask you about your health history, symptoms,
risk factors, and family history of disease. Your healthcare provider will also give
you a physical exam.
Make sure to tell your healthcare provider if you’ve had skin cancer in the past.
Also tell him or her if anyone in your family has had skin cancer.
What is a biopsy?
A biopsy is a small piece (sample) of tissue that’s taken to be checked in a lab.
Your healthcare provider will likely take a biopsy of any lesion that may look like
Types of biopsies
The different types of biopsies include:
Excisional biopsy. This type of biopsy is often used when your healthcare provider needs a wider or deeper
piece of the skin. The entire lesion and part of the surrounding skin is removed.
First, your healthcare provider uses numbing medicine on the area. Then the provider
uses a surgical knife (scalpel) to remove a full thickness wedge of skin. The wound
is closed with surgical thread (sutures), staples, tape, or surgical glue. What the
provider uses depends on how large the incision is and where it is.
Incisional biopsy. This procedure is the same as an excisional biopsy. But only part of the lesion is
Punch biopsy. This type uses a special tool to take a deep sample of skin. This may be done if the
lesion is small or when just a part of a larger lesion needs more study. The tool
removes a short cylinder of tissue, like an apple core. First, your healthcare provider
uses a numbing medicine on the area. The punch tool is turned on the surface of the
skin until it cuts through all the layers of skin. This includes the dermis, epidermis,
and the most superficial parts of the subcutis (fat). The provider removes the biopsy
sample and stitches together the edges of the wound.
Shave biopsy. This type of biopsy removes the top layers of skin of a lesion. Your healthcare provider
shaves off the layers with a scalpel. Shave biopsies are done with numbing medicine.
Sometimes part of the lesion may be left behind. You may need another procedure to
remove it completely.
Lab tests of your biopsy sample
A biopsy sample is sent to a lab, where a doctor called a pathologist looks at them
under a microscope.
If skin cancer is found, the pathologist will look at certain features of the lesion.
These include the thickness of the lesion. This can help your healthcare provider
figure out the extent (stage) of the skin cancer. The stage of skin cancer helps decide
Getting your biopsy results
Your biopsy results will likely be ready in a few days to a week or so. Your healthcare
provider will give you the results. He or she will talk with you about other tests
that you may need if skin cancer is found. Make sure you understand the results and
what follow-up you need.