During a skin cancer screening exam your dermatologist may find an abnormal mole. An abnormal mole could be a melanoma symptom, or it could be benign, meaning it’s not cancerous. To determine what type of cells make up the mole, the dermatologist will remove the mole for a biopsy.
“A skin biopsy is usually a straight-forward procedure,” says Saira George, M.D., MD Anderson dermatologist. “It’s kind of like a dermatologist version of a blood draw.”
Here’s what to expect if you are visiting the dermatologist.
Before your appointment, you should check out your own moles by doing a skin self-exam. Look for the ABCs of melanoma, and note any of the following symptoms so you can point them out to your dermatologist. These skin cancer symptoms include:
- Asymmetry: The two sides of the mole look different from each other.
- Border: The mole’s border is crooked, jagged or irregular.
- Color: The mole is multi-colored.
- Diameter: The width is more than 6 millimeters, which is about the size of pencil eraser.
- Evolution: The mole has changed in size, shape or feeling.
“Be sure to point out any ones that you have noticed are ugly ducklings,” George says. “These moles look different from your other moles, or have grown or changed noticeably. Normal moles typically look like your other moles and are slow to grow or change.”
During the appointment, your dermatologist will look for any abnormal moles. If an abnormal mole is noted on exam, your dermatologist may recommend monitoring it closely for any changes or removing it for a biopsy.
“If a mole looks concerning, a biopsy is done so that the mole can be examined further under a microscope,” George says. “This gives us a more definite diagnosis based on a close-up view of how the cells in the mole look and are arranged.”
Removing a mole
First, the dermatologist will give you a numbing injection near the mole. This may pinch a little, but should keep you from feeling any pain during the removal. There are a few different techniques your dermatologist may use to remove the mole. These techniques include:
- Shave biopsy – a razor blade is used to shave off the mole and the skin around it
- Punch biopsy – A punch tool is placed over the mole and used to “punch” out the mole
- Scalpel removal – A scalpel is used to remove the mole and skin surrounding it and stitches are used to help the skin heal
Getting the results
After the mole is removed, the sample is sent to a lab for a closer look. In a week or two, your dermatologist will call you with the results. If the cells that make up the mole look normal and healthy, you won’t need any further treatment, and your dermatologist will help you determine when your next skin screening should be.
If the cells are that make up the mole appear abnormal or cancerous, your dermatologist will help you figure out your next steps.
Having a mole removed is a simple, low-risk procedure. One negative effect is the procedure may leave a small scar.
“That’s one of the biggest downsides to mole removal,” George says. “But a biopsy scar is usually worth the peace of mind of knowing whether an abnormal mole is melanoma or not.”