Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Biopsy for melanoma

Biopsy for melanoma

Potential melanomas are usually first examined visually. Your doctor or dermatologist may use a special microscope or magnifying lens to examine the suspicious spot more closely, a process called dermatoscopy. The doctor may also take a digital or photographic image of the spot.

The next step is to remove a piece of the suspicious growth for examination by a laboratory, where the pathologist will inspect the sample for cancerous cells. In many cases, your doctor will remove the whole growth. During this procedure, your doctor will numb the area before removing a tissue sample. Various biopsy methods are used in diagnosing skin cancers, but when melanoma is suspected, doctors generally prefer to use an excisional biopsy, in which the entire growth is removed.

If you are diagnosed with melanoma, your doctor may also perform some tests to determine whether the cancer has spread beyond the skin. The first place melanomas usually spread is to nearby lymph nodes, so your doctor may feel under your arms, around your head and neck or in your groin area to determine whether any lymph nodes are enlarged. The doctor may also take a biopsy of suspicious lymph nodes. During the procedure, your surgeon may perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy, in which the surgeon removes a lymph node near the melanoma and sends it to the lab for further examination.

What is a biopsy?

During a biopsy, a doctor removes a sample of tissue or fluid from the body. A pathologist inspects the cells under a microscope to see if they are cancerous. 

Some biopsies are performed endoscopically, others under image guidance, such as ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the radiology suite. In some cases, biopsies are performed in the operating suite. This allows your doctor to collect cells from deeper inside the body. Depending on the type of biopsy performed, you will receive an anesthetic to reduce discomfort.

Compared with other diagnostic tests for cancer, biopsies often provide a more definitive diagnosis. A biopsy may help determine whether the cancer began at the site of the biopsy sample, or if it started somewhere else in the body.

Some sites that are commonly biopsied include the breast, skin, bone marrow, GI tract, lung, liver, bladder, colon and lymph nodes. Our doctors determine the most appropriate method of biopsy based on several factors, such as the size, shape, location, and characteristics of the abnormality.

Biopsy medical animation