What Happens During a Skin Cancer Biopsy?

Picture this: you notice a suspicious spot on your skin—a freckle that has changed in shape, a mole that looks irregular, or a lesion that doesn’t seem to heal. You schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional. 

After a thorough examination, they suggest a skin cancer biopsy. But what exactly does that entail? Over the next few moments, let’s go through the process of a skin cancer biopsy, unraveling the steps involved and providing you with a deeper understanding of what happens during this crucial diagnostic procedure.

What is a Skin Cancer Biopsy?

When it comes to skin cancer diagnosis, biopsies are the gold standard. It is a procedure that involves extracting a small sample of potentially affected skin tissue and examining it. 

This process allows healthcare experts to assess whether a skin irregularity is benign or malignant, as well as the kind, stage, and other crucial aspects of cancer. It’s an important step toward more personalized treatment and better patient outcomes. (1)

Preparing for a Skin Cancer Biopsy: Knowledge is Empowerment

Preparation for a skin cancer biopsy and open conversation with your healthcare provider are essential. Your doctor will go over the biopsy method and its goal with you after your initial examination. 

They will talk about your worries, address any questions you may have, and address any dangers or consequences. This open communication makes sure that you are fully aware of the situation and ready for what comes ahead.

Different Types of Skin Cancer Biopsy Procedures: Unveiling the Techniques

There are several biopsy procedures commonly used to diagnose skin cancer. Your situation may vary, and it will be up to your doctor to determine which particular biopsy will work best for you. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the most common. 

Punch Biopsy

Imagine a small, circular tool—like a cookie cutter—that gently extracts a cylindrical sample from the affected area. This minimally invasive procedure is typically performed under local anesthesia. The punch biopsy lets you examine an entire cross section of the skin, top to bottom, providing crucial information. It can be very useful for diagnosing basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

During a punch biopsy, your healthcare professional will cleanse the area and administer local anesthesia to ensure your comfort. With the punch tool, they will press into the skin, capturing a sample of the suspicious tissue. 

After the sample is obtained, the area may be dressed or left to heal on its own. A pathologist will examine the sample under a microscope in a laboratory after sending it there for analysis.

Shave Biopsy

In a shave biopsy, a sharp blade is used to remove the superficial layers of the skin, including the suspicious area. This procedure is typically performed with local anesthesia. Shave biopsies are effective for evaluating superficial lesions, such as melanoma in situ or superficial basal cell carcinoma. (2)

As you undergo a shave biopsy, your healthcare professional will cleanse the area and administer local anesthesia to ensure your comfort. Using a scalpel or similar instrument, they will gently shave off the superficial layers of the skin, capturing the suspicious tissue. 

The procedure is usually quick and does not require sutures. After the biopsy, the area may be dressed or left uncovered. The sample will be sent to a laboratory for examination.

Excisional Biopsy

An excisional biopsy is a surgical procedure that involves the complete removal of the suspicious area, along with a margin of healthy tissue. This procedure is typically performed under local anesthesia or with sedation. Excisional biopsies are commonly used for larger or suspected malignant skin lesions. (3)

During an excisional biopsy, your healthcare professional will carefully plan the incision to encompass the entire suspicious area. They will administer anesthesia, remove the tissue, and close the wound with sutures. The excised sample will be sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Incisional Biopsy

In certain cases, when complete removal of the lesion is not feasible or practical, an incisional biopsy may be performed. This procedure involves the surgical removal of a portion of the suspicious area for further examination. (4)

During an incisional biopsy, your healthcare professional will carefully remove a representative portion of the lesion.

What Happens During a Skin Cancer Biopsy

When the day of your skin cancer biopsy arrives, you may experience a mix of emotions – anticipation, nervousness, or even a sense of relief for finally taking a step towards diagnosis. Rest assured, you are in the capable and caring hands of medical professionals who are experienced in performing skin cancer biopsies. 

Understanding what to expect during the procedure can help alleviate any apprehensions you may have. Here’s a detailed look at the journey you will embark upon:

Arrival at the Medical Facility

Staff members at the medical facility will welcome you and walk you through the procedure. They understand the importance of creating a welcoming environment and will do their best to ensure your comfort.

Preparing the Biopsy Site: Sterility and Cleanliness

Before the procedure begins, the healthcare professional will meticulously prepare the biopsy site. They will cleanse the area with an antiseptic solution to create a sterile environment, reducing the risk of infection. They may cover the surrounding skin with sterile drapes, leaving only the biopsy site exposed. (5)

Administration of Anesthesia: Numbing the Area

To ensure your comfort during the biopsy procedure, local anesthesia will be administered. The healthcare professional will carefully inject the anesthesia near the biopsy site. Your discomfort throughout the treatment will be kept to a minimum thanks to the anesthetic, which will momentarily numb the area. (5)

Biopsy Procedure is Performed

Once the anesthesia has taken effect, the healthcare professional will skillfully perform the chosen biopsy technique. Whether it is a punch biopsy, shave biopsy, excisional biopsy, or incisional biopsy, they will follow established protocols and guidelines to ensure precision and accuracy. (5)

During the procedure, you may feel some pressure or slight tugging sensations as the tissue sample is obtained. However, due to the administration of anesthesia, you should not experience any pain. It is essential to communicate with the healthcare professional throughout the procedure, informing them if you are experiencing any discomfort.

Post-Biopsy Care Instructions

After the biopsy, the healthcare professional will provide you with specific instructions on how to care for the biopsy site. They will explain any dressing changes, wound care techniques, and potential activities to avoid. For best healing results, it’s important to follow all instructions to reduce the risk of potential complications.

You may also receive guidance on managing any post-procedure discomfort or pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers or prescribed medications may be recommended to help alleviate any lingering soreness or tenderness. It is important to follow the healthcare professional’s advice and contact them if you have any concerns or questions during the healing process.

Potential Discomfort and Pain Management: Your Comfort Matters

After the biopsy, it is common to experience some discomfort or mild pain at the biopsy site. This is typically manageable with over-the-counter pain relievers or as recommended by your healthcare professional. Applying a cold compress to the area may help reduce swelling and alleviate any localized pain. (5)

However, if you experience severe or prolonged pain, excessive bleeding, signs of infection, or any other concerning symptoms, it is crucial to reach out to your healthcare professional for guidance.

Remember, everyone’s experience with a skin cancer biopsy is unique, and the level of discomfort can vary. Some individuals may have minimal discomfort, while others may experience more pronounced sensations. 

Open communication with your healthcare professional throughout the process will ensure that your comfort is prioritized and appropriate measures are taken to address any concerns.

Final Thoughts

Undergoing a skin cancer biopsy can be an emotionally charged experience. However, by understanding what to expect during the procedure, you can approach it with confidence and a sense of preparedness. The expert hands of healthcare professionals will guide you through each step, ensuring your comfort and well-being. 

Embrace the journey, knowing that a skin cancer biopsy is a crucial and necessary path towards diagnosis and effective treatment. Seek professional evaluation for any suspicious skin lesions, and let the expertise of the medical team pave the way for a brighter, healthier future.


  1. Biopsy | Medical Diagnosis & Procedure. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/biopsy 
  2. Shave biopsy. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/skin-biopsy/multimedia/shave-biopsy/img-20007312 
  3. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. (n.d.). National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms 
  4. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. (n.d.). National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms
  5. Biopsy. (2013, March 18). Cancer.Net. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/diagnosing-cancer/tests-and-procedures/biopsy