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Diagnosing melanoma

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A melanoma diagnosis usually begins with a visual examination. The Melanoma Research Foundation and the American Cancer Society recommend monthly self-examinations and annual doctor visits to screen for potential skin cancer, but only a doctor can determine whether a suspicious spot or mole is melanoma.

Some tests designed for diagnosing melanoma include:


Your doctor may remove the suspicious growth, or a piece of it, for examination by a laboratory, where the pathologist will inspect the sample for cancerous cells. During this procedure, the 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 usually 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 the 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.


Melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to metastasize, or spread to distant bones or distant organs. Several medical imaging procedures, including CT scan, MRI, PET/CT scan or X-ray, may be used to detect cancer cells or tumors throughout the body.

Learn more about diagnosing skin cancer

Next topic: How is melanoma treated?

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