Skin cancer (non-melanoma) : Diagnosis

A diagnosis of non-melanoma skin cancer will usually begin with a visit to your 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.

In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help GPs recognise the signs and symptoms of skin cancer and refer people for the right tests faster.

To find out whether you should be referred for further tests for suspected skin cancer, you can read the NICE 2015 guidelines on suspected cancer: recognition and referral.


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 carrying out a physical examination.

However, they'll probably also perform a biopsy, a minor surgical procedure where either part or all of the tumour is removed and studied under a microscope.

This is usually carried out under a local anaesthetic, which means you'll be conscious but the affected area will be numbed, 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.

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Further tests

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 the 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 perform 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.

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Staging skin cancer

Staging is used to describe how far a tumour has spread. The stage of your 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.

Read about what cancer stages and grades mean.

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