A diagnosis of non-melanoma skin cancer will usually begin with a visit to a GP, who will examine your skin and decide whether you need further assessment by a specialist.
Some GPs take digital photographs of suspected tumours so they can email them to a specialist for assessment.
If skin cancer is suspected, you may be referred to a skin specialist (dermatologist) or specialist plastic surgeon. The specialist should be able to confirm the diagnosis by doing a physical examination.
However, they'll probably also do a biopsy, which is a minor surgical procedure where either part or all of the tumour is removed so it can be studied under a microscope.
This is usually done after a local anaesthetic is given, which means you'll be conscious but the affected area will be numb, so you will not feel any pain.
A biopsy allows the dermatologist or plastic surgeon to determine the type of skin cancer you have and whether there's any chance of it spreading to other parts of your body.
Skin cancer can sometimes be diagnosed and treated at the same time. The tumour can be removed and tested, and you may not need further treatment because the cancer is unlikely to spread.
It's usually several weeks before you receive the results of a biopsy.
If you have basal cell carcinoma, further tests are not usually required as it's very unlikely that the cancer will spread.
However, you may have a second basal cell carcinoma on a different area of skin, so it makes sense to have all of your skin examined by the skin expert.
In rare cases of squamous cell carcinoma, further tests may be needed to make sure the cancer has not spread to your lymph nodes or another part of your body.
These tests may include a physical examination of your lymph nodes. If cancer has spread, it may cause your glands to swell.
If the dermatologist or plastic surgeon thinks there's a significant risk of the cancer spreading, it may be necessary to do a biopsy on a lymph node. This is called a fine-needle aspiration (FNA).
During FNA, cells are removed using a needle and syringe so they can be examined.
Finding cancerous cells in a nearby lymph node would suggest the squamous cell carcinoma has started to spread to other parts of your body.
Staging skin cancer
Staging is used to describe how far a tumour has spread. The stage of the cancer will help determine your recommended treatment.
For non-melanoma skin cancer, this only applies to squamous cell carcinoma, as there's no staging system for basal cell carcinoma.
Page last reviewed: 6 January 2020
Next review due: 6 January 2023