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Melanoma: Diagnosis

If your healthcare provider thinks you might have melanoma, you will likely need certain exams and tests to be sure. Diagnosing melanoma starts with your healthcare provider asking you questions. He or she will ask you about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. Your healthcare provider will also examine you. He or she will take a close look at any suspicious moles or other marks on your skin. Your health care provider will look at your skin with the ABCDE rule in mind. This means looking at:

  • Asymmetry. One half of the mole does not match the other half.

  • Border irregularity. The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.

  • Color. The mole has different colors in it. It may be tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. Or it may have areas that appear to have lost color.

  • Diameter. The mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser. But some melanomas can be smaller.

  • Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.

Your healthcare provider will ask you about the mole. Tell him or her:

  • When you first noticed it

  • If it hurts or itches

  • If it oozes fluid or bleeds, or gets crusty

  • If it’s changed in size, color, or shape

Make sure to tell your healthcare provider if you’ve had skin cancer in the past. Also note whether anyone in your family has had skin cancer.

Getting a biopsy

A biopsy is taking a sample of tissue that’s taken to be checked in a lab. This is needed to confirm if a suspicious mole or spot is melanoma. Your healthcare provider will likely take a biopsy of any mole or other skin mark that may look like cancer.

Types of biopsies

The different types of biopsies include the following:

  • Excisional biopsy. This type of biopsy is often used when a wider or deeper piece of the skin is needed. The entire mole is removed. First, a numbing medicine is used on the area. Using a surgical knife (scalpel), the healthcare provider removes a full thickness wedge of skin. The wound is closed with surgical thread (sutures), staples, steri-strips, or surgical glue. This depends on the size of the incision and where it is.

  • Incisional biopsy. This procedure is similar to an excisional biopsy, but only part of the mole or mark is removed.

  • Punch biopsy. This type uses a special tool to take a small, full-thickness sample of skin. The tool removes a short cylinder of tissue, like an apple core. First, a numbing medicine is used on the area. The punch tool is turned on the surface of the skin until it cuts through all the layers of skin. The healthcare provider removes the biopsy sample and sometimes stitches the edges of the wound together. 

  • Shave biopsy. This type of biopsy removes the top layers of skin. They are shaved off with a scalpel. Shave biopsies are done with a local numbing medicine. 

Lab tests of your biopsy sample

A biopsy sample is sent to a lab, where a doctor called a pathologist looks at them under a microscope. He or she may do other tests on them to see if they contain melanoma cells.

If melanoma is found, the pathologist will look at certain features of the melanoma. These include the thickness of the melanoma and the portion of cells that are actively dividing (mitotic rate). These can help find out the extent (stage) of the melanoma. The stage of melanoma helps determine treatment options.

The pathologist might also do other tests to look for certain gene changes within the melanoma cells that could affect treatment options.

Getting your biopsy results

Your biopsy results will likely be ready in a few days to a week or so. Your healthcare provider will notify you of the results. He or she will talk with you about other tests that may be needed if melanoma is found. Make sure you understand the results and what follow-up you need.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Michael Stephen, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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