Biopsies and cancer diagnosis

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A biopsy allows doctors to look at the tumour cells to diagnose the type of cancer you may have. Find out about the different types of biopsies, why you may need a biopsy and the potential risks.

Key points

  • In a biopsy (say: BY-op-see), the doctor will take a small sample of tissue from what they think might be a tumour.
  • A doctor called a pathologist looks at the cells in the tissue sample under a microscope to see if they are cancerous.
  • A biopsy helps to diagnose exactly what type of cancer you have. It can also tell the doctor whether your treatment is working well.
  • There are two main types of biopsies – closed biopsies and open biopsies.
  • You may need to wait a few weeks for the results of the biopsy.

Why do I need a biopsy?

For the majority of cancers, a biopsy is the most important part of diagnosis. A biopsy is often the only way the doctors can look at the actual cells in a tumour. By looking at the cells, they can tell what type of cancer you have. Knowing what type of cancer you have is the most important part of planning your treatment.

What is a closed biopsy?

In a closed biopsy, the doctor or surgeon puts a needle into the tumour to get a sample. It is called a closed biopsy because the doctor does not have to cut the skin open.

You may first be given a local anaesthetic, which will reduce or take away the pain at the site of the procedure. Then the doctor will put a needle through your skin and into the tumour. If the tumour is deep inside you, a scan can help the doctor get a picture of the inside of your body. This will help them see where to put the needle. The doctor will use the needle to take out a sample of the tumour cells. Doctors called pathologists, who specialize in looking at biopsies, will then look at the cells under a microscope in a lab.

What is an open biopsy?

In an open biopsy, the doctor will need to make a cut in your skin to get a sample of the cells in your tumour. An open biopsy is a type of surgery that is usually done by a surgeon.

Unless the tumour is on the outside of your body (for example on your skin), you will almost always need a general anaesthetic for an open biopsy. Once the anaesthetic is working and you are completely asleep, the surgeon will cut through the skin to get to the tumour to take a small sample. Sometimes, if it is possible, they may even remove the whole tumour. The surgeon will use sutures (stitches) to close up the cuts that were made during surgery. A pathologist will look at the cells in the tumour sample under a microscope in a lab.

Biopsies and risk

Having a biopsy has some risks such as bleeding and infection. Your doctor will talk to you about the risks and benefits of having a biopsy. Be sure to ask questions if there is anything you do not understand.

After a biopsy

You might feel pain in the place where the biopsy was taken and you might have a bruise. You can take medicine to help with the pain.

You will have to wait a number of days for the results of the biopsy, sometimes up to a few weeks.

Remember, your best source of information about biopsies is your health-care team.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019