Boots WebMD Partners in Health
Return To Boots

Cancer health centre

Skin cancer (squamous cell) - How do doctors diagnose squamous cell skin cancer?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

If you're worried about a spot, lump, flaky patch, or blemish on your skin, you should see your doctor.

It can be hard to diagnose squamous cell skin cancer just by looking at it. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between this type of skin cancer and another type of damage caused by the sun (called a solar keratosis).

If your GP thinks you may have squamous cell skin cancer, they should refer you to a doctor with specialist training in diagnosing skin cancer.[30] This will probably be a dermatologist.

You may need a simple operation to remove some cells from your skin. The cells will be checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. This operation is called a biopsy.

You should get an appointment within two weeks if:[31]

  • You have a scaly or crusty blemish bigger than 1 centimetre (about half an inch) that won't heal

  • You are taking drugs to suppress your immune system and have symptoms that suggest you could have squamous cell skin cancer

  • You've had an organ transplant and have a new or growing skin blemish.

You'll also get an early hospital appointment if your GP has already done a biopsy and diagnosed squamous cell skin cancer.

What happens during a biopsy?

During a biopsy, your doctor removes part or all of the spot on your skin. Before the biopsy your doctor will probably give you an injection to numb the area around the spot so you won't feel any pain.

During the biopsy your doctor may:

  • Remove part of your spot and send it to a laboratory to check for cancer

  • Remove all of your spot and send it to a laboratory to check for cancer.

Your doctor will probably want to remove all of your spot. This is because there may be just a few cancer cells in one part of your spot. So if your doctor takes out just a part of it, these cells could be missed.

But if your spot is very big or is on your face, your doctor probably won't remove all of it until they know for certain that it's cancer. This is so you don't get a big scar if you don't need to.[32]

You will have to go back to your doctor to find out the results of your biopsy. This may be your GP or the dermatologist at the hospital where you had the biopsy.

Your doctor will tell you one of three things.[33]

  • Your skin sample didn't contain any cancer cells.

  • Your skin sample had some cancer cells in it, but they were all removed during your biopsy. You won't need to have any more surgery. (When the laboratory technician checks a skin sample, they look at how much healthy tissue there is around it. Healthy tissue contains no cancer cells. If there is enough healthy tissue removed, it means that all the cancer cells have been removed. If there were any cancer cells left behind they could spread to other parts of the body.)

  • Your skin sample had some cancer cells in it, and some others may have spread. You will need to have surgery to remove all the cancer. You will also have some more tests to see whether your cancer has spread.

Your doctor may talk about the stage of your squamous cell skin cancer. All cancers are classified according to how serious they are. This helps doctors decide what treatment is needed. To learn more, see What stage is my cancer?

Last Updated: June 21, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
Next Article:

Popular slideshows & tools on BootsWebMD

woman looking at pregnancy test
Early pregnancy symptoms
donut on plate
The truth about sugar addiction
smiling african american woman
Best kept secrets for beautiful hair
couple watching sunset
How much do you know?
nappy being changed
How to change your baby's nappy
woman using moisturizer
Causes and home solutions
assorted spices
Pump up the flavour with spices
bag of crisps
Food cravings that wreck your diet
woman with cucumbers on eyes
How to banish dark circles and bags
probiotic shakes
Help digestion
polka dot dress on hangar
Lose weight without dieting