Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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What if I find something suspicious on a skin exam?

Be sure to show your doctor any area that concerns you. If your doctor suspects you might have skin cancer, he or she will do exams and tests to find out. If you can’t see your doctor right away, you might want to take good close-up photos of the area so your doctor can see if the area is changing when you do get an appointment.

Medical history and physical exam

Usually the doctor’s first step is to take your medical history. The doctor will ask when the mark first appeared, if it has changed in size or appearance, and if it’s causing any symptoms (such as pain, itching, or bleeding). You might also be asked about past exposures to causes of skin cancer (including sunburns and tanning practices) and if you or anyone in your family has had skin cancer.

During your physical exam, your doctor will note the size, shape, color, and texture of the area in question, and if it is bleeding, oozing, or crusting. The rest of your body may be checked for moles and other spots that could be related to skin cancer.

The doctor may also feel the lymph nodes (bean-sized collections of immune system cells) under the skin near the suspicious area. Some skin cancers spread to lymph nodes. When this happens, the affected lymph nodes may become larger and firmer than usual.

If you are being seen by your primary doctor and skin cancer is suspected, you may be referred to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin diseases, who will look at the area more closely.

Along with a standard physical exam, many dermatologists use dermoscopy (also known as epiluminescence microscopy [ELM], surface microscopy, or dermatoscopy) to see spots on the skin more clearly. The doctor uses a dermatoscope, which is a special magnifying lens and light source held near the skin. Sometimes the doctor will use a thin layer of alcohol or oil with this instrument. The doctor may take a digital photo of the spot.

When used by an experienced dermatologist, this test can improve the accuracy of finding skin cancers early. It can often help tell whether a spot on the skin is likely to be benign (not cancer) without doing a biopsy.

Skin biopsy

If the doctor thinks that a suspicious area might be skin cancer, a sample of skin from that area will be removed and looked at under a microscope. This is called a skin biopsy. There are many ways to do a skin biopsy. The doctor will choose one based on the suspected type of skin cancer, where it is on the body, the size of the affected area, and other factors. For more detailed information on skin biopsies, see our documents Melanoma Skin Cancer or Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell.

If a spot is found to be cancer or a pre-cancer, your doctor may want to do more tests or treat it. If the spot is small and localized, a more extensive biopsy (to remove more tissue) or some type of surgery may be all that’s needed. For cancers that might be more widespread (especially melanomas), imaging tests might be done to see if the cancer has spread, and treatment such as immunotherapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, or radiation might be needed. Again, to learn more, see our skin cancer information.


Last Medical Review: 03/19/2015
Last Revised: 03/20/2015