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  • How is skin cancer diagnosed?


    Recognising a skin cancer

    Normal, healthy spots on the skin usually have a smooth edge and an even colour. Skin cancers don’t all look the same, but there are signs to look out for, including:

    • a spot that is different from other spots on the skin
    • a spot that has changed in size, shape, colour or texture
    • a sore that doesn’t heal
    • a spot that bleeds.

    There is no screening program for skin cancer, so it’s important to get to know your skin. Checking yourself every three months, or as recommended by your general practitioner (GP), will help you notice any new or changing spots.

    Skin biopsy

    If you notice any changes to your skin, your doctor will examine you, paying particular attention to any spots you have identified as changed or suspicious. If the doctor thinks you may have a skin cancer, they will usually take a tissue sample (biopsy) to confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure and is usually performed in the doctor’s office.

    You will be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area, and the doctor will take a small piece of tissue from the spot or cut it out completely in a procedure called an excision. Often they will use stitches to close the wound and help it heal.

    The tissue that is cut out will be sent to a laboratory, where a pathologist will examine it under a microscope. The results will be available in about a week.

    If all the cancer is removed during the biopsy, this will probably be the only treatment you need.

    This website page was last reviewed and updated December 2017.

    Information reviewed by: Prof H Peter Soyer, Chair in Dermatology, Director, Dermatology Research Centre, The University of Queensland School of Medicine, Head, South-West Cluster, Deputy Head, School of Medicine, Director, Dermatology Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Christine Archer, Melanoma and Skin Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, ACT; Irena Brozek, Research and Development Officer, Cancer Programs, Cancer Council NSW; A/Prof T Michael Hughes, Surgical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Surgery, Sydney Adventist Hospital Clinical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Dr Simon Lee, Head of Surgery, The Skin Hospital, Dermatologist, Sydney Skin, NSW; A/Prof Jonathan Stretch, Plastic Surgeon, Melanoma Institute Australia; Mark Strickland, SunSmart Manager, Cancer Council Western Australia, WA; Dr Tony Tonks, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Canberra Plastic Surgery, ACT; Leslie Tortora, Cancer Information and Support Service, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Dr April Wong, Poche Fellow, Melanoma Institute Australia; Robert Wood, Consumer. Thanks also to Sydney Melanoma Diagnostic Centre for providing the dysplastic naevus photograph, and to Prof H Peter Soyer for providing the other photographs.


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