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Although your doctor may use several tests to learn more about your illness, a biopsy of some sort may be needed, to find out for sure whether you have cancer.
The doctor takes a sample of cells or tissue from the suspected area. The sample then goes to a laboratory to be looked at under a microscope.
The doctor may take the sample from a lump that you have - but this isn’t always the case, because people with cancer don’t always have lumps. For instance, the doctor may take a sample of bone marrow if they think you might have a disease such as myeloma.
In the laboratory a specialist doctor (a pathologist) looks at the sample to see whether there is any cancer there. Biopsies may also be used to find out whether a cancer has spread, or how fast-growing (aggressive) it may be.
The study of samples taken from lumps of tissue is called histology.
The study of samples smeared onto a slide is called cytology.
There are different ways of getting the biopsy sample...
- the doctor may remove a whole lump or part of a lump (this is an excision biopsy). Slices of the suspected cancer can then be looked at under the microscope
- cells may be sucked up through a thin needle into a syringe – for example, from a lymph node or the bone marrow. This is called fine needle aspiration cytology. The cells are smeared onto a glass slide, ready for examination under the microscope
- a fine core of tissue (rather than just some cells) may be taken up through a needle. This is a core biospy
- some cells may be scraped off body tissue and put onto a slide (for example from a wart on the skin, or from the inside of the womb)
- the doctor may take small tissue samples through a special instrument put into a body opening. For example, lung samples can be taken by putting a bronchoscope through the nose or mouth and down into lungs; bowel samples can be taken through a colonoscope.
For some biopsy tests the doctor uses an x-ray or an ultrasound scan to find out exactly where to take the sample from.
More information about specific biopsies:
"Cancer Journey" pack for people with learning difficulties
This pack contains a specific resource on Biopsy. The link above will take you to the Plymouth Project website containing resources to help explain aspects of cancer to patients with learning difficulties. This pack was funded by the Big Lottery.