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How is skin cancer diagnosed?

Physical examination

If you notice any changes to your skin, your doctor will examine you, looking carefully at any spots you think are unusual. Using a handheld magnifying instrument called a dermoscope, the doctor will examine the spot more closely.

Skin biopsy

It’s not always possible to tell the difference between a skin cancer and a non-cancerous skin spot just by its appearance. If there is any doubt, the doctor may need to take a tissue sample (biopsy) for examination under a microscope. This will help confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure that is usually performed in the doctor’s office. You will be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area, and the doctor will take a small piece of tissue from the spot. In some cases, the spot is cut out completely in a procedure called an excision. Stitches are used to close the wound and help it heal.

The tissue that is removed will be sent to a laboratory, where a pathologist will examine it under a microscope. The results will be available in about a week. If all the cancer is removed during the biopsy, this will probably be the only treatment you need.

Can smartphone apps help detect skin cancer?

Several smartphone apps allow you to photograph your skin at regular intervals and compare photos to check for changes. While these apps may be a way to keep a record of any spot you are worried about or remind you to check your skin, research shows they cannot reliably detect skin cancer and should not replace a visit to the doctor. If you notice a spot that causes you concern, make an appointment with your GP or dermatologist straightaway.

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed in January 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Diona Damian, Dermatologist, The University of Sydney at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and Associate, Melanoma Institute of Australia, NSW; Dr Annie Ho, Radiation Oncologist, Genesis Care, Macquarie University, St Vincent’s and Mater Hospitals, NSW; Rebecca Johnson, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Melanoma Institute of Australia, NSW; Shannon Jones, SunSmart Health Professionals Coordinator, Cancer Council Victoria; Liz King, Skin Cancer Prevention Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Roslyn McCulloch, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Paige Preston, Policy Advisor, Cancer Prevention, Health and Wellbeing, Cancer Council Queensland; Dr Michael Wagels, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD. Thanks also to Sydney Melanoma Diagnostic Centre for providing the dysplastic naevus photograph, and to Prof H Peter Soyer for providing the other photographs. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.