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What is a Biopsy?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A biopsy is a sample of tissue from a living organism which is used as a diagnostic tool. Biopsies are carried out to identify various diseases, or to eliminate certain causes for symptoms. There are a number of ways in which a doctor can collect a biopsy, and an assortment of techniques can be used to analyze the resulting sample. If you have been scheduled for this procedure, you may want to talk to your doctor about the specific technique which will be used to collect the sample.

When a patient complains of a medical problem, a doctor uses an assortment of techniques to diagnose the problem. Most doctors try to start with non-invasive procedures before they turn to taking tissue samples. A biopsy may be needed when other diagnostic tools reveal no obvious problem, or when a scan of the patient's body shows that there is an area of irregularity which may require a closer look.

The most basic sample can be taken with a scraping. A doctor would rub a swab on a patient's skin, for example, to grab a sample so the cause of a skin condition could be determined. Biopsies can also be taken with large-bore needles which basically remove a core sample, and in some cases graspers or forceps are used inside the body, with the assistance of endoscopic tools to help the doctor see. The procedure can also be done using surgical techniques, in which a small section of the area of interest is cut out.

A surgical biopsy can also be a useful tool when it is clear that the problem may be caused by a malignancy. This procedure can be used to remove questionable moles or lymph nodes near a cancerous region in their entirety, reducing the risk that the problem might spread. When a pathologist examines the sample, he or she can determine whether or not it was malignant, and whether or not the surgeon needs to remove more material for the patient's safety.

A pathologist can look at the sample under a microscope for obvious signs of irregularity, or use chemical testing methods to check for less obvious conditions. Once the pathologist has studied the sample, he or she sends the results to the physician who requested the procedure, along with recommendations for treatment which the physician may consider in a treatment plan. In the case of a malignancy, the results will also state the biopsy either had “positive margins,” meaning that the doctor needs to remove more tissue, or “negative margins,” which indicate that the entire malignancy was removed.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By kdkelley100 — On Feb 06, 2012

I had only two moles, one on my neck and one on my right side. I had both removed in January due to my concern of the look of the one on my neck. They both turned out to be precancerous. What are the chances of them growing back and what is the likelihood of me developing cancer from this?

By pharmchick78 — On Aug 03, 2010

@EarlyForest -- There are a couple of different ways that a breast biopsy is done.

The most common type of biopsy is a fine-needle aspiration biopsy. When you go in for a fine-needle biopsy, you lay on a procedure table and the doctor inserts a thin biopsy needle attached to a syringe into the breast.

By using the syringe, the doctor can see if the mass is a liquid-filled cyst, or if it is a solid mass. This can help the doctor determine the course of treatment.

Other types of breast biopsies include stereotactic breast biopsies, in which a small incision is made into the breast and a tissue sample taken, and a surgical breast biopsy, during which a portion of the mass is surgically removed.

However, the fine-needle biopsy is most common for this type of procedure, so that's probably what you should expect.

By EarlyForest — On Aug 03, 2010

What should I expect from a breast biopsy? I had the signs of a lump on my last mammogram and my doctor said they want to take a biopsy.

What is the procedure for these things?

By anon76211 — On Apr 09, 2010

I asked what a biopsy is and received an answer that was, in my opinion, stated in words that were not complicated and easy to understand.

Thank you.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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