- Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
- What is skin cancer?
- What is ultraviolet (UV) radiation?
- Are some people more likely to get sun damage?
- How do I protect myself from UV rays?
- What about tanning pills and other tanning products?
- Skin exams
- What should I look for?
- What if I find something suspicious?
- Additional resources
What if I find something suspicious?
Be sure to show your doctor any area that concerns you. A qualified doctor should be able to identify any suspicious areas you may have. If your doctor suspects you might have skin cancer, he or she will use one or more of the following methods to find out.
Medical history and physical exam
Usually the doctor’s first step is to take your medical history. The doctor will ask when the mark on the skin first appeared, if it has changed in size or appearance, and if it has caused any symptoms (pain, itching, bleeding, etc.). You could 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 there is bleeding or scaling. The rest of your body may be checked for spots and moles 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 may 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 oil with this instrument. A digital or photographic image of the spot may be taken. 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 also often help reassure you if a spot on the skin is likely benign (non-cancerous) without the need for a biopsy.
If the doctor thinks that a suspicious area might be skin cancer, they will remove a sample of skin from that area to be looked at under a microscope. This is called a skin biopsy. Different methods can be used for 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 biopsies, see our documents, Melanoma Skin Cancer and Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell.
If a spot is found to be cancerous or pre-cancerous, your doctor may recommend further tests or treatment. If the spot is small and localized, a more extensive biopsy or some type of surgery may be all that is needed. For cancers that might be more extensive (especially melanomas), imaging tests might be done to see if the cancer has spread, and further treatment such as immunotherapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, or radiation might be needed. Again, for more detailed information, see our skin cancer documents.
Last Medical Review: 09/20/2012
Last Revised: 01/25/2013