I will be having a biopsy soon to test for cancer. What will happen during the biopsy?

A biopsy is one of the diagnostic tests a doctor may use to analyze suspicious cells. The type of biopsy requested depends on the type of cancer suspected or the location of the cells in question. According to the National Cancer Institute, the different biopsy methods include:

Needle biopsy: Removes tissues or fluids with a small needle (fine-needle aspiration) or a wide needle (core biopsy). Needle biopsies are mostly used on tumors that can be felt through the skin, like breast lumps or lymph nodes. This type of biopsy can be used to detect several different types of cancer, like breast, prostate and lung cancers. Needle biopsies might also be vacuum-assisted, where a suction device increases the amount of fluid and cells extracted through the needle, decreasing the number of times the needle would be inserted. There are also image-guided biopsies that use imaging technology, such as an ultrasound, MRI or CT scan, to determine the location of the material that needs to be removed. These are often used when a tumor appears on an imaging scan, but cannot be felt by the doctor or when the area is located deeper inside the body.

Endoscopic biopsy: Uses an endoscope to extract a tissue sample. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and lens on the end to view inside the body and also has a tool that will remove tissue for closer examination in a lab. The endoscope can be inserted into several parts of the body, such as your mouth or urinary tract, and also can be inserted through the skin with a small incision. An endoscopic biopsy can be used to detect several types of cancer, such as colon, bladder and lung cancers.

Surgical biopsy: A surgical biopsy actually requires an incision in the skin and is sometimes used as the last resort if none of the other types of biopsies can be performed or if the other procedures did not bring about definitive results. Examples of surgical biopsies include removing an entire breast lump or lymph node. An incisional biopsy removes a piece of the suspicious area for examination while an excisional biopsy removes the entire lump.

Two additional, specialized biopsies are skin biopsies and bone marrow biopsies.

A skin biopsy removes cells from the surface of the skin and is used to detect different types of skin cancers and is often either a punch biopsy, when a circular tool removes a small section of the deep layers of the skin, or a shave biopsy, when a tool similar to a razor scrapes the surface of the skin. A bone marrow biopsy is generally done to diagnose leukemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma. A needle is used in this procedure to extract bone marrow.

ä For information contact Courtney Britton, librarian at Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge, at (225) 927-2273, cbritton@cancerservices.org or visit the Education Center at 550 Lobdell Ave., Baton Rouge.

ä Internet Resources:

What you Need to Know about Cancer – NCI


Biopsy Procedures used to Analyze Cancer – Mayo Clinic


Biopsy: What to Expect – American Society of Clinical Oncology


This column is presented as a service by Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge, a United Way affiliate.