A doctor removes a small piece of tissue or cells to examine under a microscope to check for cancer cells.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our head and neck cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Brockstein BE, Stenson KM, Song S. Overview of treatment for head and neck cancer. UpToDate https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-treatment-for-head-and-neck-cancer (accessed Spetember 2018).
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. 2016. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng36 (accessed September 2018).
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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