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Tests to diagnose

The main test to diagnose skin cancer is to take a sample (biopsy) of the area. Find out about the different biopsies. 

You need to go to your GP if you are worried about an abnormal area of skin. Your GP might refer you to a specialist if they think you have skin cancer. Or they might do a biopsy themselves if they have had the specialist training.  

Testing for skin cancer

It’s not always possible to tell the difference between skin cancer and non cancerous skin conditions. Your doctor might put some oil on your skin and use a dermatoscope (like a magnifying glass) to examine the area closely.

The specialist takes a sample of skin (biopsy) to find out whether you have skin cancer. This sample is sent to the lab for examination under a microscope. Usually a biopsy is under local anaesthetic, this depends on where the possible cancer is and how large it is.

Types of biopsies

Understanding the results of your biopsy

It usually takes about 2 to 3 weeks to get the results of your biopsy. You'll go back to your GP or dermatologist for these.

You need treatment to the area if the skin sample contains any cancerous cells. For example, surgery to remove the area completely, or other treatments such as chemotherapy creams.

You might not need any further treatment if you had an excision biopsy. The sample is closely checked in the laboratory to make sure a border of healthy skin tissue has been removed all around it. This is called a healthy margin. You will need more surgery if not enough healthy tissue has been removed. This is important because if any cancer cells are left behind, the cancer can continue to grow.

Last reviewed: 
09 Sep 2014
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Blackwell, 2015

  • Cancer. Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015. pp1314-1336   

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