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Diagnosing Skin Cancer



The process of diagnosing skin cancer is a daunting one. Here are some tips and advice on detecting early signs of skin cancer at home and how further tests by Doctor and Cancer Specialists diagnose non-melanoma skin cancer.

The most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer are basal and squamous cell cancer:

  • Basal cells are newly formed cells made deep in the epidermis (the surface layer of skin). Basal cell cancer usually looks like a small crater in the skin, or a bump, that has a shiny surface.
  • Squamous cells are old cells that are pushed to the surface of the skin by newly produced basal cells. Squamous cell cancer tends to be scaly and red.

Home Diagnosis
Skin cancer is most likely to occur on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun: the face, neck, hands, arms, and legs.

Most skin cancers can be cured if they are caught early so you should check your skin regularly for any unusual changes, such as:

  • Moles or birthmarks that change shape, color, or size
    • New growth patches on your skin that are red and scaly and pale nodules that grow larger and then crust
    • Unhealed sores
    • Patches of skin that itch, swell or bleed and become red or bumpy
    • The skin becomes yellow/white when stretched.

The above symptoms could be connected to other health problems. To determine whether the above signs indicate, skin cancer testing is needed from a doctor.

Doctor’s Diagnosis
If you have developed signs of non-melanoma skin cancer, your doctor will examine the abnormal area of skin and ask you about the changes that you have experienced.

If your doctor suspects that you may have skin cancer, they will refer you to a team of cancer specialists – either the Local Hospital Skin Cancer Multidisciplinary Team (LSCMDT) or the Specialist Skin Cancer Multidisciplinary Team (SSCMDT). GPs have guidelines on which patients need to be seen urgently by cancer specialist teams.

Cancer Specialist Diagnosis

Either the LSCMDT or SSCMDT cancer specialist team – whichever you have been referred to by your GP – will diagnose skin cancer by running a biopsy on the affected area.

A biopsy is done under local anesthetic through an injection into the area that is being tested; the specialist will then cut out a sample of skin tissue to be sent off for laboratory testing under a microscope.

There are four different types of biopsy:

  • Incisional or excisional – a small piece of skin tissue is removed using a surgical knife
  • Punch – a deep skin tissue sample is removed
  • Shave – the top layer of skin is shaved off
  • Tru-Cut – tissue sample is taken with a needle.

After the first three types of biopsies listed above, you may require stitches; these will stay in for roughly a week, and if you haven’t been given dissolvable stitches, you will have to return to the cancer specialist or your GP to have them removed.

Biopsy results usually take two to three weeks to process. If the skin sample contains cancerous cells, you may be required to have more tests.