Biopsy: Types of biopsy procedures used to diagnose cancer

You might be nervous about an upcoming biopsy. Learning about biopsies and how and why they're done may help reduce your anxiety.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

A biopsy is a procedure to remove a piece of tissue or a sample of cells from your body so that it can be analyzed in a laboratory. If you're experiencing certain signs and symptoms or if your doctor has identified an area of concern, you may undergo a biopsy to determine whether you have cancer or some other condition.

While imaging tests, such as X-rays, are helpful in detecting masses or areas of abnormality, they alone can't differentiate cancerous cells from noncancerous cells. For the majority of cancers, the only way to make a definitive diagnosis is to perform a biopsy to collect cells for closer examination.

Here's a look at the various types of biopsy procedures used to make a cancer diagnosis

Bone marrow biopsy

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Your doctor may recommend a bone marrow biopsy if an abnormality is detected in your blood or if your doctor suspects cancer has originated in or traveled to your bone marrow.

Bone marrow is the spongy material inside some of your larger bones where blood cells are produced. Analyzing a sample of bone marrow may reveal what's causing your blood problem.

Bone marrow biopsy is commonly used to diagnose a variety of blood problems — both noncancerous and cancerous — including blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. A bone marrow biopsy may also detect cancers that started elsewhere and traveled to the bone marrow.

During a bone marrow biopsy, your doctor draws a sample of bone marrow out of the back of your hipbone using a long needle. In some cases, your doctor may biopsy marrow from other bones in your body. You receive a local anesthetic before a bone marrow biopsy in order to minimize discomfort during the procedure.

Endoscopic biopsy

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During endoscopy, your doctor uses a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) with a light on the end to see structures inside your body. Special tools are passed through the tube to take a small sample of tissue to be analyzed.

What type of endoscopic biopsy you undergo depends on where the suspicious area is located. Tubes used in an endoscopic biopsy can be inserted through your mouth, rectum, urinary tract or a small incision in your skin. Examples of endoscopic biopsy procedures include cystoscopy to collect tissue from inside your bladder, bronchoscopy to get tissue from inside your lung and colonoscopy to collect tissue from inside your colon.

Depending on the type of endoscopic biopsy you undergo, you may receive a sedative or anesthetic before the procedure.

Needle biopsy

During a needle biopsy, your doctor uses a special needle to extract cells from a suspicious area.

A needle biopsy is often used on tumors that your doctor can feel through your skin, such as suspicious breast lumps and enlarged lymph nodes. When combined with an imaging procedure, such as X-ray, needle biopsy can be used to collect cells from a suspicious area that can't be felt through the skin.

Needle biopsy procedures include:

  • Fine-needle aspiration. During fine-needle aspiration, a long, thin needle is inserted into the suspicious area. A syringe is used to draw out fluid and cells for analysis.
  • Core needle biopsy. A larger needle with a cutting tip is used during core needle biopsy to draw a column of tissue out of a suspicious area.
  • Vacuum-assisted biopsy. During vacuum-assisted biopsy, a suction device increases the amount of fluid and cells that is extracted through the needle. This can reduce the number of times the needle must be inserted to collect an adequate sample.
  • Image-guided biopsy. Image-guided biopsy combines an imaging procedure — such as X-ray, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound — with a needle biopsy. Image-guided biopsy allows your doctor to access suspicious areas that can't be felt through the skin, such as abnormalities on the liver, lung or prostate. Using real-time images, your doctor can make sure the needle reaches the correct spot.

You'll receive a local anesthetic to numb the area being biopsied in order to minimize the pain.

Feb. 28, 2014 See more In-depth