Undergoing a skin biopsy can be a bit unnerving, but this test is a critical weapon in the fight against skin cancer, especially the most dangerous types, including melanoma.
Still, if your Dermatologist has ordered a melanoma biopsy, it doesn't necessarily mean you have melanoma—or cancer at all, for that matter. It just means there's something your care team wants to investigate more closely, such as an abnormal mole or mark.
Fortunately, biopsies are quick, easy, and relatively painless. Most importantly, they can save lives. So, if your Dermatologist recommends one, don't delay.
Skin Biopsies: What They Are and Why They Matter
When conducting a melanoma biopsy, your Dermatologist will remove a small skin sample and send it to a lab so it can be analyzed under a microscope. With this up-close look, doctors can see what the naked eye can't, such as cancer cells.
Having that insight is crucial because early cancer detection leads to significantly better outcomes. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, most skin cancers are caught and treated without so much as a major scar. Although survival rates for advanced-stage melanoma can be as low as 25 percent, the survival rate for early-stage melanoma once treated is 99 percent, reports the American Cancer Society.
Of course, doctors aren't just looking for melanoma when they take a biopsy. The test can also help determine if a mole or growth is another type of skin cancer, such as squamous or basal cell carcinoma—or perhaps a different problem altogether, such as a skin infection or disorder.
No matter the diagnosis, biopsies are important. Through these tests, Dermatologists can quickly identify the best path forward and pivot to the necessary treatments right away.
Before Your Biopsy
Your doctor will give you specific instructions to prepare for the biopsy, but in general, expect to do the following:
- Tell your care team whether you have allergies and if you're taking medications, including prescriptions, vitamins, and over-the-counter medicines. Doctors may need to take extra precautions if you take certain medications, such as blood thinners.
- Make sure the provider doing your biopsy knows your medical history, especially if you have any bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia.
- Let your doctor know if you believe you might be pregnant.
- Confirm whether you'll be able to drive yourself home or if you'll need someone to take you to and from your appointment.
- Eat and drink as you normally would. Unlike other procedures, you likely won't need to fast ahead of time. Still, ask your provider to be sure.
Beyond those preparations, make a list of questions to ask before the procedure—including what your insurance will cover, whether you'll need a follow-up visit, what to know about scarring, and how long it might take to get results.
During Your Biopsy
Skin biopsies are typically done on an outpatient basis, meaning you're in and out on the same day.
Once you're in the exam room, the doctor will clean the biopsy site and give you a local anesthesia injection. This numbing shot helps ease any pain from the skin removal while keeping you awake and clear-headed during the procedure. You may feel a pinch just like with any other shot, but after that, you shouldn't feel the biopsy.
Depending on your needs and what the Dermatologist thinks is best, you may then undergo one of these common biopsy methods:
- A shave biopsy is just what it sounds like. The doctor will use a small blade to shave the top part of the skin. They will then stop the bleeding with a topical chemical or medicine or with an electric cauterizing tool.
- A punch biopsy cuts out a small hole from the mole or growth, similar to a punch card. It goes a little deeper than a shave biopsy, so doctors typically use stitches to close the wound.
- Excisional and incisional biopsies use a scalpel to remove the whole growth (excisional) or just part of it (incisional). You'll likely get stitches for this method.
Afterward, you may get a bandage or other dressing to cover the wound, and you'll soon be out the door.
After Your Biopsy
Once the skin sample goes to the lab for testing, you can expect results from your Dermatologist within seven to 14 days. If the results come back normal, you might not need to do anything further other than continue routine skin cancer screenings. If results indicate cancer, your doctor will discuss your options with you.
In the meantime, follow your Dermatologist's instructions for wound care, including going in to have stitches removed if necessary. Your Dermatologist will probably ask you to keep a bandage on the wound with a healing ointment until it heals. Here are a few other things to keep an eye out for:
- Expect slight bleeding, soreness, or bruising at the removal site for a little while, but if those symptoms don't go away within a few days—or if they get worse—let your doctor know.
- Watch for signs of infection, including redness, pus, or fever.
- After the wound heals, you may have a small scar. Regularly applying sunscreen can help reduce discoloration and speed up fading, the American Academy of Dermatology says. Be sure to pick a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
Most importantly, try not to worry. It may not be skin cancer at all—but even if it is, early detection is key to achieving your best outcome.