A biopsy is where a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells is removed and examined under a microscope. It is the only certain way of telling if an abnormal area or lump is a cancer or not.

What is a biopsy?

A biopsy is when doctors remove a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells from an area of the body. This is then sent to be checked under a microscope. This is how doctors find out whether an abnormal area or lump (tumour) is cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign).

Doctors may also use the sample to get more information about the type of cell the cancer started from. They can do different tests on the sample. The results of these tests help your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

It is not always possible to do a biopsy. Sometimes the area is too difficult to reach. Or you may be too unwell. Your doctor will discuss this with you. If needed, they can arrange other tests instead.

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What happens during a biopsy?

The type of biopsy you have will depend on where the sample is being taken from. It also depends on the type of cancer you may have. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the test to you.

You may have the biopsy as an outpatient. But if the sample is being taken from an area or organ inside the body, you may need to stay in hospital for a short time.

The doctor or nurse will usually give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area. But you may have the biopsy under a general anaesthetic.

Sometimes doctors use a scan or x-ray. This helps them take the biopsy from the exact area.

The biopsy should not be painful, but it may feel uncomfortable. You may feel some pressure for a short time during the test.

After the biopsy, you may have 1 or 2 stitches. The doctor or nurse will put a dressing over the area to keep it clean. You may ache or feel some pain after the biopsy. Taking mild painkillers can help with this.

Biopsy results

Your biopsy results are usually ready within a few days. But it may take a couple of weeks. Sometimes they are called pathology results. The doctor who studies the cells is called a pathologist.

Types of biopsy

The main types of biopsy include the following:

  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) – a doctor or nurse puts a very fine needle into the area and withdraws a few drops of fluid containing a sample of cells.
  • Core biopsy – a doctor or nurse uses a slightly larger, hollow needle to remove a larger sample of cells.
  • Excision biopsy – a doctor cuts through the skin to remove the whole lump or abnormal area.
  • Incision biopsy – a doctor cuts through the skin to remove part of the lump or abnormal area.
  • Endoscopic biopsy – a doctor or nurse uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end (endoscope) to take samples of cells from inside the body. This may be used for biopsies in the gullet (oesophagus), stomach or bowel.

Other types of biopsy include: