Tests and diagnosis

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Diagnosing skin cancer

To diagnose skin cancer, your doctor may:

  • Examine your skin. Your doctor may look at your skin to determine whether your skin changes are likely to be skin cancer. Further testing may be needed to confirm that diagnosis.
  • Remove a sample of suspicious skin for testing (skin biopsy). Your doctor may remove a small sample of suspicious-looking skin for laboratory testing. A biopsy can determine whether you have skin cancer and, if so, what type of skin cancer you have.

Determining the extent of the skin cancer

If your doctor determines you have skin cancer, you may have additional tests to determine the extent (stage) of the skin cancer.

Because superficial skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma rarely spread, a biopsy which removes the entire growth often is the only test needed to determine the cancer stage. But if you have a large squamous cell carcinoma, Merkel cell carcinoma or melanoma, your doctor may recommend further tests to determine the extent of the cancer.

Doctors use the Roman numerals I through IV to indicate a cancer's stage. Stage I cancers are small and limited to the area where they began. Stage IV indicates advanced cancer that has spread to other areas of the body.

The skin cancer's stage helps determine which treatment options will be most effective.

Mar. 28, 2014