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 the removal of a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells so it can be examined under a microscope. It is the only certain way of telling if an abnormal area or lump is a cancer or not.

As well as helping to diagnose a cancer, a biopsy may be used to give your doctors information about the cell the cancer developed from. Different tests can be done on the cells that give more information and help the doctors plan the best treatment.

It is not always possible to do a biopsy. Sometimes the area is too difficult to reach or a person is too unwell to have the procedure. Your specialist will discuss this with you and, if necessary, arrange other tests instead.

What happens during a biopsy?

How the biopsy is done will depend on where the sample is being taken from. Your cancer doctor or nurse will explain the procedure to you.

Some biopsies can be done as an outpatient, but you may need a short stay in hospital if the biopsy is of an area or organ inside the body.

Sometimes a scan or x-ray is used to help the doctor guide a biopsy needle to the exact area.

The biopsy is often done using a local anaesthetic to numb the area. A general anaesthetic may sometimes be needed.

After the biopsy you may have 1 or 2 stitches. You will have a dressing applied to the area to keep it clean.

Main types of biopsy

There are different types of biopsy – your specialist will explain which is best for you. The type of biopsy you have will depend on where in your body the abnormal area is and the type of cancer that is suspected.

The main types of biopsy are:

  • fine needle aspiration (FNA)
  • core biopsy
  • excision biopsy
  • incision biopsy
  • endoscopic biopsy.

See the information about your type of cancer, for more about which biopsy you may need.

Other types of biopsy

Other less frequently used types of biopsy include:

  • vacuum assisted biopsy (VAB)
  • wire (guided) localisation
  • cone biopsy
  • image guided biopsy.

How we can help

Macmillan Grants

If you have cancer, you may be able to get a Macmillan Grant to help with the extra costs of cancer. Find out who can apply and how to access our grants.

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