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How Your Doctor Uses a Biopsy to Diagnose nonMelanoma Skin Cancer

A biopsy is the only way for your doctors to know for sure if you have cancer. During a biopsy, the doctor removes a piece of tissue from the skin growth. The doctor can remove the tissue sample in one of these ways.

  • Shave biopsy. The doctor uses a thin blade to shave off the growth so that he or she removes the part above the surface of the skin.

  • Punch biopsy. The doctor uses a tool similar to a cookie-cutter to remove a circle-shaped part of the growth. The tissue removed is usually about half the size of a pencil eraser (about 3 millimeters or less).

  • Incisional biopsy. The doctor uses a scalpel (surgical knife) to remove a portion of the growth.

  • Excisional biopsy. The doctor uses a scalpel to remove all of the growth as well as some of the surrounding tissue.

Once the doctor removes the tissue samples, another doctor called a pathologist checks the cells for cancer. A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in looking at cells under a microscope to find problems such as cancer. The pathologist decides whether there is cancer and, if so, the type of cancer.

In most cases, nonmelanoma skin cancers can be cured by simple treatments, without further testing. In rare cases when squamous cell cancer may have spread, you may need more tests to determine the stage of cancer before further treatment begins.