Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Diagnosis

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2013

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a description of the common test doctors use to find out whether a suspicious mole, slow-healing sore, or other skin feature is cancerous. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has metastasized (spread). Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • Age and medical condition
  • Type of cancer suspected
  • Signs and symptoms
  • Previous test results

Because non-melanoma skin cancer rarely spreads, a biopsy is often the only test needed to diagnose and find out the stage (extent) of cancer. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. During this procedure, the suspected skin lesion is removed (usually after a local anesthetic has been used to numb the area), as well as an area of healthy tissue around the lesion (called the margin). The sample removed during the biopsy is analyzed by a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease) who determines if it is skin cancer.

Your doctor will review the results of the biopsy with you. No further treatment beyond the biopsy may be necessary if the entire cancer is removed. However, if the cancer is present at the edges of the tissue removed during the biopsy, additional treatment will usually be necessary.

Learn more about what to expect when having a biopsy

The next section helps explain the different stages for this type of cancer. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select Stages, or you can select another section, to continue reading this guide.