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How is skin cancer diagnosed?

Skin cancer is diagnosed starting with a visual exam by a healthcare professional. If you're 40 or older, you should have your provider perform a total body scan every year to look for any signs of skin cancer. If you're younger, you should get a body scan every three years. You also should examine your own skin periodically.

There are several types of skin biopsies that healthcare professionals may perform if you have suspicious-looking growths that could be skin cancer. A skin biopsy involves giving you a local anesthetic and then removing a sample of skin for examination under a microscope. You may feel minor discomfort -- a small needle stick and burning -- for a few seconds. Types of biopsies are as follows:
  • Shave biopsy. The epidermis and the upper part of the dermis are shaved off in a thin slice. This procedure is performed with local anesthesia.
  • Punch biopsy. A sample of the entire thickness of the skin is taken (about 1/8 inch) with an instrument that takes a cylindrical core sample of the skin and a small part of the underlying fat layer.
  • Incisional biopsy and excisional biopsy. With a scalpel, a wider and deeper sample of skin with various amounts of the underlying fat is removed, and then the wound is closed with stitches or staples. Incisional biopsy removes a portion of the growth, and excisional biopsy is used to remove or sample broad or deep growths. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.