Biopsy: An Overview of the “Scary” Diagnostic Test

A surgeon conducts biopsies by removing a sample cell or tissue from the body, and then examines it closely under a microscope. A doctor often recommends a biopsy when an initial diagnostic test, usually an imaging study, suggests that an area of tissue in the body is not normal. An oncologist or cancer expert may refer to abnormality as a tumor, lesion, or mass.

Why is a biopsy necessary?

A biopsy is the most effective way to diagnose cancer and identify many other conditions. The invasive procedure can also help determine which treatment option is best for certain disorders.

What are the types of biopsies?

There are several different kinds of biopsies. Almost all of them involve using a sharp tool to extract a small amount of tissue in the body.

Leading examples of this procedure include:

  1. Bone marrow biopsy

Inside some of the body’s larger bones, such as the hip or femur within the leg, a sponge-like material called marrow produces blood cells. If a doctor suspects problems in the blood, he or she may order the patient to have a bone marrow biopsy. This test singles out both cancerous and noncancerous conditions, including infections, anemia, lymphoma, and leukemia. A bone marrow biopsy can also help determine if cancer cells from another part of the body have metastasized (spread) to the bones.

The marrow is most accessible using a long needle that a doctor inserts into the hipbone. Since the inside of the bones cannot be numbed with anesthesia, some people feel a dull pain during the procedure.

  1. Endoscopic biopsy

Doctors use endoscopic biopsies to access tissue inside the body and gather samples from the lung, bladder, or colon. During this procedure, a specialist uses a flexible, thin tube called an endoscope. This device has a tiny camera and a light at the end, allowing a doctor to see the area of concern through a video monitor. In most cases, surgical tools accompany the endoscope as it enters the body, which enables sample tissue collection.

An endoscope enters the body through a small incision or any opening in the body, including the nose, mouth, urethra, or rectum. Completing the procedure takes about five to 20 minutes in a hospital. The patient may feel slightly uncomfortable after an endoscopic biopsy. Bloating, feeling gassy, or a sore throat are other common, yet temporary side effects.

  1. Needle biopsies

The purpose of needle biopsies is to collect cell samples or any tissue that a surgeon can access under the skin.

There are a few different types of needle biopsies. The most common are:

  • Fine needle biopsy. This procedure uses a thin needle attached to a syringe, which helps draw out fluids and cells for lab testing.
  • Core needle biopsy. This procedure uses a medium-sized needle to remove a column of tissue. The process is quite similar to the way scientists collect core samples from the earth.
  • Image-guided biopsy. Imaging studies, such as CAT scans or X-rays, accompany this procedure to help doctors access specific areas of the body, including the lung, liver, or other vital organs.
  • Vacuum-assisted biopsy. This procedure uses the suction power of a vacuum to collect sample cells for testing.
  1. Skin biopsy

If a rash, lesion, or any suspicious growth on the skin does not respond to medication prescribed by a dermatologist, or if the cause of the skin problem is unknown, a doctor may require the patient to undergo a skin biopsy. 

A surgeon performs a skin biopsy by first administering local anesthesia before using a scalpel or a circular blade called a “punch” to remove a small portion of the area. The sample will be sent to a laboratory, where a pathologist will look for evidence of skin cancer or inflammation of the skin structures and blood vessels.

  1. Surgical biopsy

Sometimes, a patient may have a suspicious mass that a doctor cannot effectively or safely reach using the techniques mentioned above, or the results of other biopsies were negative. An example would be a tumor in the stomach near the main artery of the body (aorta). In this scenario, a surgeon may collect a sample specimen by making a conventional incision or via  laparoscopy. 

How do patients prepare for a biopsy?

A surgeon may require some preparation on the part of the patient. Eating a clear liquid diet, cleansing the colon, or withholding food and fluids are a few examples. Do not worry because a doctor will provide instructions on what a patient should do before the procedure.

Before a medical procedure, it is also important to discuss what medications and supplements the patient is taking. He or she may need to stop consuming certain drugs to avoid complications during a biopsy.

What should patients expect from a biopsy?

Biopsies vary considerably depending on how difficult it is to obtain the tissue. “Invasiveness” is the medical term for this. 

A minimally invasive biopsy, including most skin biopsies, may be done inside a doctor’s office during the same visit in which a skin lesion was found. Injecting a numbing agent can make the quick procedure almost painless.

A surgeon performs more invasive biopsies at a hospital, an accredited surgery center, or a specialized doctor’s office. The patient would need to schedule a separate appointment for the biopsy. Sedation and using pain relief medication are often necessary to minimize discomfort.

What happens after a biopsy?

After a doctor extracts and preserves the specimen, a pathologist will collect and evaluate it under a microscope. By noting the tissue cells’ specific type, shape, and internal activity, a pathologist can diagnose the problem.

The amount of time it takes to acquire the results from a biopsy varies. Though a pathologist can read a biopsy and report back to a surgeon in a few minutes, producing accurate conclusions often take a week or longer. 

Real talk — is a biopsy essential?

While other tests and procedures can suggest that cancer is present, only a biopsy can make a diagnosis. The procedure might seem scary to many, but it is important to remember that most biopsies are pain-free and low-risk procedures.

What if a biopsy confirms that cancer is present?

You have options. For harmless, alternative cancer treatments that consider your physical, mental, emotional, and overall wellness, call New Hope Unlimited at 480-757-6573. Our goal is to restore your body’s disease-free condition and improve your quality of life.

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