Diagnosing skin cancer (non-melanoma) 

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 if you should be referred for further tests for suspected skin cancer, 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 will probably also perform a biopsy – a surgical procedure where either a part or all of the tumour is removed and studied under a microscope. This is usually carried out under a local anaesthetic, meaning you will be awake, but the affected area will be numbed so you won't feel pain.

This allows the dermatologist or plastic surgeon to determine what type of skin cancer you have and whether there is any chance the cancer could spread to other parts of your body.

Sometimes, skin cancer can be diagnosed and treated at the same time. In other words, the tumour can be removed and tested and you may not need further treatment because the cancer is unlikely to spread.

It may be several weeks before you receive the results of a biopsy.

Further tests

If you have basal cell carcinoma (BCC), then you usually won't require further tests, as the cancer is unlikely to spread.

However, in rare cases of squamous cell carcinoma, further tests may be needed to make sure the cancer has not spread to another part of your body.

These tests may include a physical examination of your lymph nodes (glands found throughout your body). If cancer has spread, it may cause your glands to swell.

If the dermatologist or plastic surgeon thinks there is a high 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.

Page last reviewed: 08/10/2014

Next review due: 08/10/2016