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Skin Cancer Symptoms and Tests

Most basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can be cured if found and treated early.

Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Sometimes skin cancer is painful, but usually it is not. A change on the skin is the most common sign of skin cancer. Not all skin cancers look the same. Skin changes to watch for include:

  • Small, smooth, shiny, pale, or waxy lump
  • Firm, red lump
  • Sore or lump that bleeds or develops a crust or a scab
  • Flat red spot that is rough, dry, or scaly and may become itchy or tender
  • Red or brown patch that is rough and scaly

Other symptoms you may notice include:

  • A skin sore that bleeds easily
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Oozing or crusting spots in a sore
  • Appearance of a scar-like sore without having injured the area
  • Irregular blood vessels in or around the spot
  • A sore with a depressed (sunken) area in the middle

Tests for Diagnosing Skin Cancer

If you have a change on the skin, the doctor must find out whether it is due to cancer or to some other cause. Skin cancer is diagnosed using a biopsy. A biopsy is the only sure way to diagnose skin cancer. Here’s what happens:

  • Your doctor removes all or part of the area that does not look normal
  • The sample goes to a lab
  • A pathologist checks the sample under a microscope

You may have the biopsy in a doctor’s office or as an outpatient in a clinic or hospital. Where it is done depends on the size and place of the abnormal area on your skin. You probably will have local anesthesia.

There are four common types of skin biopsies:

  • 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.
  • Shave biopsy: The doctor uses a thin, sharp blade to shave off the abnormal growth.

Talk to your doctor

Before having a biopsy, you may want to ask your doctor these questions:

  • Which type of biopsy do you recommend 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?
  • Are there any risks? What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the biopsy?
  • What will my scar look like?
  • How soon will I know the results? Who will explain them to me?

Source: National Cancer Institute – What You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

To Learn More

For more information:

Go to the Skin Cancer health topic.