Biopsy for head and neck cancer

A doctor removes a small piece of tissue or cells to examine under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Having a biopsy for head and neck cancer

To make a diagnosis, your doctor needs to remove a small piece of tissue or some cells from the area that looks abnormal. This is called a biopsy. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (called a pathologist) looks at the sample under the microscope. They check the sample for any cancer cells.

There are different ways of taking a biopsy from the head and neck area.

Needle (core) biopsy

Your doctor uses a needle to take small pieces of tissue from the lump or abnormal area. Before taking the biopsy, they inject some local anaesthetic into the area to numb it. You may feel uncomfortable and have a feeling of pressure for a short time during the biopsy.

Incision biopsy

Your doctor numbs the area with an injection of local anaesthetic. They take a thin slice of tissue using a sharp knife (scalpel). Depending on the size of the piece of tissue removed, you may need to have some stitches.

If an area like the base of the tongue is affected you are more likely to have a general anaesthetic. The surgeon may remove as much of the affected area as possible at the same time. They may do this with the help of robotic instruments which the surgeon controls. This is called surgery for head and neck cancer.

Fine needle aspiration

This is a simple test that you can have as an outpatient. It is often used to check neck lumps. But it can also be done to take samples from the mouth or throat.

The doctor passes a fine needle into the lump. They withdraw (aspirate) some cells into the syringe. Sometimes the doctor uses an ultrasound scan to help guide the needle into the area.

You do not usually need a local anaesthetic to numb the area.

After your biopsy

If you had a biopsy taken from inside your mouth or throat it will take a few days for the tissue to heal. During this time you may be asked to:

  • avoid hot foods and hot fluids
  • eat only soft foods.

You may have some bruising or soreness in the area the biopsy was taken from. The soreness may last for a week or so. Taking mild painkillers should help. Ask your nurse or doctor what they recommend.

If you have any stitches they will tell you if they need to be removed or if they are dissolvable stitches.

Your doctor or nurse will tell you when your biopsy results are likely to be ready.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

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