16.1 PTC Cancer Life Phases: Diagnosis of Skin Cancer

16.1 PTC Cancer Life Phases: Diagnosis of Skin Cancer

Every type of cancer is a little bit different in the way that the doctor will diagnose it. A lot of times, doctors will first look at you for visual symptoms. Then, if they notice anything they will do blood or urine tests. They might also do imaging tests like an MRI or CT scan. Sometimes they do a biopsy which is where they take a tiny sample of your tissue to take back to the lab to test for cancer cells. This happens a little bit differently for each type of cancer, but for any procedure that involves significant pain for a biopsy, they will numb you or put you under anesthesia (put you to sleep for the procedure) so that you don’t feel any pain. (anesthesia is not normally used for skin biopsies where simple numbing injections usually suffice)

Once you know what symptoms to LOOK out for, consider cancer tests that allow us to detect cancers that do not have external, easy to see symptoms.  A handy resource that follows is a table of cancer testing guidelines recommended for adults by age.  Have you had these testings done within the past recommended number of years?  If not, they may help catch things early when treatment is so highly successful.  For even more detail, link to the related article listed below.  And in another study specifically about colon-rectal cancer (CRC), read about the mortality findings when screenings are not done or followed up properly but don't limit that thinking just to CRC since it probably applies to screenings overall (see article below).  Are you up to date on those routine recommended screenings?.

Overview

 Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer. Nearly all skin cancers can be treated effectively if they are found early, so knowing what to look for is important as well as regular visits with a dermatologist familiar with the higher risks for transplant patients.

There are many types of skin cancer, each of which can look different on the skin. Click here to view a picture gallery containing some examples of the more common types of skin cancer, as well as some other non-cancerous types of skin growths. But skin cancers can look different from these examples. This is why it’s important to see a doctor if you have any lumps, bumps, spots, sores, or other marks on your skin that are new or changing, or that worry you for any other reason.

How is skin cancer diagnosed clinically? 

Your doctor will look at skin changes over time, and if they suspect possible cancer, they may need to do take a tiny sample of your skin to test it for cancer in the lab. This test is called a biopsy. If after these tests your doctor determines you have skin cancer, they will conduct more tests to find out what stage the cancer is in. This is more common for Merkel cell carcinoma or melanoma. For most kinds of skin cancer, if they remove the whole thing (like the whole bump or mole), they usually get all of the cancer and don’t need to do more tests. This means that most of the time, skin cancer is caught and fixed in Stage 1, but Stage 4 cancer means that it has spread to other parts of the body.

What will happen when I go to the doctor about this?

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are some questions you should get ready to answer when you get to your doctor's appointment. Your doctor may ask you about when you first noticed your skin changes? Have any of your spots grown or changed? Do any of them bleed or itch? How bad is it? The doctor will look at your skin spots carefully on your body.

If your doctor thinks they need to, they will do a biopsy which could happen in three ways. Usually, doctors give you a small shot that helps numb the place where they will biopsy. This can pinch a little bit but you shouldn’t feel any pain after that while they do the biopsy. That spot might be a little sore as it heals.

One way they could do the biopsy is by doing what’s called a punch biopsy. This is where your doctor will use a special circular tool to remove a little bit of your skin in the spot. The second way it might happen is called a shave biopsy which is when the doctor will use a razor blade to shave off part of the spot. This can sound scary but since you will be numb you won’t feel anything, maybe just a little scratch. The third type is called an excisional biopsy where your doctor will use a small knife called a scalpel to remove a portion of your skin that is looking strange and possibly cancerous. Again, you won’t be able to feel your doctor doing this and all of these biopsies can be done in just a regular doctor visit in the room.

Action step: perform self-exam for skin cancer

Detecting skin cancer

Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of skin color. It is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. When caught early, skin cancer is highly treatable.

You can detect skin cancer early by following dermatologists’ tips for checking your skin. Download the AAD's body mole map to document your self-examination, or the How to SPOT Skin Cancer™ Infographic and know what to look for when checking your spots.

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If you notice a spot that is different from others, or that changes, itches or bleeds, you should make an appointment to see a dermatologist.

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    DISCLAIMER: The content of this TRIO post-transplant cancer Web site is not influenced by sponsors. The site is designed primarily for use by transplant recipients and their supporters. The information contained herein should NOT be used as a substitute for the advice of an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other health care provider. The information provided here is for educational and informational purposes only. In no way should it be considered as offering medical advice. Please check with your transplant team or a physician skilled in cancer and your organ type if you suspect you are ill.