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Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers

  • Posted: 01/11/2011

Diagnosis

If you have a change on your skin, your doctor must find out whether or not the problem is from cancer. You may need to see a dermatologist, a doctor who has special training in the diagnosis and treatment of skin problems.

Your doctor will check the skin all over your body to see if other unusual growths are present.

If your doctor suspects that a spot on the skin is cancer, you may need a biopsy. For a biopsy, your doctor may remove all or part of the skin that does not look normal. The sample goes to a lab. A pathologist checks the sample under a microscope. Sometimes it's helpful for more than one pathologist to check the tissue for cancer cells.

You may have the biopsy in a doctor's office or as an outpatient in a clinic or hospital. You'll probably have local anesthesia.

There are four common types of skin biopsies:

  • Shave biopsy: The doctor uses a thin, sharp blade to shave off the abnormal growth
  • Punch biopsy: The doctor uses a sharp, hollow tool to remove a circle of tissue from the abnormal area
  • Incisional biopsy: The doctor uses a scalpel  to remove part of the growth
  • Excisional biopsy: The doctor uses a scalpel to remove the entire growth and some tissue around it. This type of biopsy is most commonly used for growths that appear to be melanoma.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having a biopsy:

  • Which type of biopsy do you suggest for me?
  • How will the biopsy be done?
  • Will I have to go to the hospital?
  • How long will it take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt?
  • Will the entire growth be removed?
  • Are there any risks? What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the biopsy?
  • Will there be a scar? If so, what will it look like?
  • How soon will I know the results?
  • If I do have cancer, who will talk with me about treatment?