Skin Cancer Staging

If the biopsy shows that you have skin cancer, your next step depends on the type of cancer you have. If it is a basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, you will likely have the tissue removed by a dermatologist or surgeon, depending on the size and location.

In cases of melanoma, a patient is typically referred to a cancer specialist, known as an oncologist. One of the first steps your oncologist will take is to determine the stage or extent of your melanoma. Staging is a careful attempt to learn how thick the tumor is, and if it has spread. If the tumor is thick, additional imaging may be required, such as CT, MRI or PET scan.

Knowing the stage of your cancer will help your cancer doctor:

  • Determine the appropriate initiative treatment and the risk of reoccurrence
  • Create a personalized treatment plan, based on the stage, location, your age, etc.
  • Identify any clinical trials that may be available as part of your treatment

The stage is based on:

  • The thickness of the growth
  • How deeply it has grown beneath the top layer of skin
  • Whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body

In some cases, the oncologist may check your lymph nodes to stage the cancer (such surgery may be considered part of the treatment because removing cancerous lymph nodes may help control the disease).

Oncologists use the Roman numerals I through IV to indicate a cancer's stage. Stage I cancers are small and limited to the area where they began. Stage IV indicates advanced cancer that has spread to other areas of the body. Your oncologist will discuss your stage and symptoms at your visit.