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Skin Cancer Screening Through a Biopsy
If an area on the skin looks abnormal, your doctor will usually perform a biopsy. The doctor will remove as much of the suspicious tissue as possible with a local excision. A pathologist will then look at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. However, you may want to have the biopsy sample checked by a second pathologist, because it is sometimes difficult to tell if a skin growth is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Decisions about screening tests can be difficult, because not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor, because it is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.
The risks of skin cancer screening tests include:
- Finding skin cancer may not improve health or help a person live longer: This is especially true if you have advanced skin cancer or if it has already spread to other places in your body. Also, some cancers never cause symptoms or become life threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. It is not known if treatment of these cancers would help you live longer than if no treatment were given, and treatments for cancer may have serious side effects.
- False-negative test results can occur: Skin cancer screening test results may appear to be normal even though skin cancer is present. A person who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if there are symptoms.
- False-positive test results can occur: Skin cancer screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests (such as a biopsy), which also have risks.
- A biopsy may cause scarring: When a skin biopsy is done, the doctor will try to leave the smallest scar possible, but there is a risk of scarring and infection.
Your doctor can advise you further about your risk for skin cancer and your need for skin cancer screening tests.