What is a biopsy?
A biopsy is the removal of some cells or tissue, fluids or growths for examination. The sample can be taken from any part of your body. It’s sent to a laboratory for testing and is looked at under a microscope.
Why is a biopsy taken?
Biopsies are most often done to either confirm or rule out a suspicion of cancer. However, biopsies are also performed to diagnosis other causes of your symptoms including:
- Inflammatory disorders, such as in the kidney (nephritis) or the liver (hepatitis).
- Infections, such as tuberculosis.
- Immune disorders, such as chronic pancreatitis.
A biopsy is also done to see if you’re a match for an organ transplant. If you’ve received an organ transplant, a biopsy is done to make sure your body isn’t rejecting it.
Sometimes a biopsy is done to determine your treatment plan. For example, a biopsy may help your healthcare provider decide if surgery is the best treatment or if a different treatment may be considered instead.
Does ordering a biopsy mean I probably have cancer?
Not necessarily. Just because you’re having a biopsy doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer or any other specific condition. Although biopsies are often ordered when there is suspicion of cancer, results often come back negative (you don’t have cancer).
Your healthcare provider may have ordered a biopsy because of health concern that’s entirely unrelated to cancer. A biopsy is much like any other test. It’s another tool to help figure out what’s going on in your body. Your healthcare provider may want you get a biopsy if a lump is discovered during your physical exam or if a scan or other test reveals something abnormal.
Who will perform my biopsy?
Biopsies are routinely done by surgeons, dermatologists and radiologists. Ask your healthcare provider who will perform the biopsy and who will interpret the results. This will vary by type of biopsy.
How is a biopsy done?
Biopsies are done in many different ways depending on where the cell or tissue sample is taken:
- Shave biopsy: This biopsy uses a razor to scrape away a small sample of cells on the surface of your skin. This method is often used to collect part of a skin growth, sore or mole.
- Punch biopsy: This biopsy uses a special device to punch a hole in the skin to remove all or most of a lesion deep in the skin. You may need stitches.
- Excisional or incisional biopsies: These skin biopsies remove all (excisional) or part of a lesion (incisional) to test or treat it. A scalpel is used to perform the biopsy. You will need stitches.
Other biopsy types
- Needle biopsy: The needle used to gather tissue is inserted through your skin and is sometimes guided by a CT scan or ultrasound (if it can’t be felt). A fine-needle aspiration (also called a fine-needle biopsy) is attached to a syringe. This method is used to remove a small sample of tissue from a tumor or fluid. A core needle biopsy is used to remove larger tissue samples. This method is commonly used to check breast biopsies.
- Endoscopic or laparoscopic biopsy: These biopsies use an endoscope or laparoscope to see inside your body. With both of these methods, a small cut is made in your skin and an instrument is inserted. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the tip, along with a cutting tool to remove your sample. A laparoscope is a slightly different scope.
- Excisional or incisional biopsy: For these open biopsies, a surgeon cuts into your body and the entire tumor is removed (excisional biopsy) or a part of the tumor is removed (incisional biopsy) to test or treat it.
- Perioperative biopsy: This biopsy is done while you’re having another procedure. Your tissue will be removed and tested right away. Results will come in soon after the procedure so if you need treatment, it can start immediately.
- Bone marrow biopsy: This biopsy is performed to get a closer look at your blood and rule out specific bone marrow disorders or cancers.
How do you prepare for a biopsy?
Depending on the biopsy type, your healthcare provider might make certain suggestions. Your provider might suggest that you:
- Temporarily stop taking certain medications, such as aspirin or blood thinners.
- Don’t eat or drink before the procedure.
Your healthcare provider will also want to know:
- All medications you take, including herbal supplements, vitamins and over-the-counter products.
- Any allergies you have, including latex, which is in the gloves worn by your healthcare team who will perform your biopsy.
- Any current illnesses/medical conditions.
- If there’s any chance you’re pregnant.
What should I expect during my biopsy?
Depending on the type of biopsy, your biopsy may be performed in your provider’s office or an operating room. If your biopsy is painless and simple (like a cell scraping), you won’t need a numbing agent. If your biopsy is more involved, your provider or surgeon will give you pain relief medications, including a local anesthetic where the biopsy is removed from, a regional anesthetic to numb a larger local area or general anesthesia (to put you to sleep).
After the anesthetic has taken effect, your biopsy will be performed. Your cell or tissue sample will then be sent to a laboratory to be viewed under a microscope.
How do I prepare for a biopsy if I’m pregnant?
If you're pregnant, you might have to take extra precautions before having a biopsy. It depends on the reason, the type of biopsy and the part of your body where it’s done. Be sure to talk with your provider about any questions or concerns you have about the impact of a biopsy on the health of you and your baby.
How do I help my child prepare for a biopsy?
The biopsy procedures are the same in children and adults. Ask your provider about ways to reduce your child’s anxiety and pain.
Will I go home after my biopsy?
If local anesthesia is used, you’ll go home after the procedure. If general anesthesia is used, you may have to stay overnight.
What are the risks or complications of having a biopsy?
Results and Follow-Up
How will I get my results?
How you get results may vary depending on the policy of your healthcare provider or healthcare institution. Your healthcare provider may call you with the results, may want to discuss your results in a follow-up office visit or your results may be posted in your electronic medical record.
When will I get my results?
Sometimes your provider or a pathologist will be able to make a diagnosis and tell you immediately after taking your cell or tissue sample. If your biopsy was taken while you were having surgery, results might be available immediately when you wake up.
The time it takes to get your results back also depends on if the laboratory is on-site or if the sample needs to be sent out for analysis. For most biopsy procedures, results are generally available within a few days to one week to 10 days. Ask your provider when you should expect to get your results and how you will receive them. Call your provider’s office if you haven’t received your results by the date you’ve been told.
How long does it take to recover after a biopsy?
You may feel pain for a short period of time no matter what type of biopsy you’ve had. Your recovery time depends on the type of biopsy you had, the size of the biopsy, the location of the biopsy, and the type of anesthesia. Recovery times can vary from person to person. If you needed stitches this can add to your recovery time. Your provider will recommend pain relievers if they’re needed, which will ease any discomfort during your recovery.
What should I look for if there’s a need to call my doctor?
Call your healthcare provider if you:
- Have a fever (this could be a sign of infection).
- The biopsy site won’t stop bleeding.
- You see redness, swelling, or oozing from the biopsy site.
What is a Mohs biopsy?
A Mohs biopsy is a procedure performed if you have skin cancer on your ears, nose, lips, eyelids or hands. Your healthcare provider will remove the skin growth — a little at a time — and examine it under a microscope in real-time. Your provider will continue to repeat the process of removing the growth and examining the sample until cancer is no longer seen at the edges of the sample removed.
Will my surgical biopsy leave a scar?
Most biopsies use a scalpel or other sharp tool to remove a sample of your tissue. The biopsy might leave a small scar at the site. You and your healthcare provider should discuss how to reduce the chance of permanent, noticeable scars if this bothers you.
Are biopsy results always accurate?
Biopsies are highly accurate. Pathologists use specialized microscopes to look at the cells in your sample.
If you are not completely comfortable with the results, you can always get a second opinion. Ask your provider about how to go about getting a second opinion if you so desire. Call your insurance carrier beforehand to determine if a second opinion is covered under your plan.
Will I need another biopsy?
Sometimes another biopsy is taken if a larger tissue sample is needed to make a definite diagnosis.
What happens if I’m diagnosed with cancer?
If your biopsy indicates you have cancer, it helps to stay positive. Your healthcare provider will tell you the type of cancer you have and its stage (the lower the stage number the more confined the cancer is).
Cancer can be frightening but there’s always hope. Many new drugs and approaches are available to treat cancer, and new medications and treatments are always being discovered. Your provider will help you to focus on your next steps while making sure you have all the information you need to address your concerns.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It can be concerning to hear that you need a biopsy — especially if it’s because your provider suspects cancer. Waiting for your results to arrive can be stressful too. But no matter what your results are, a biopsy is the best way to spot disease or cancer early. Your provider will help you every step of the way to stay informed and help you make important decisions about your health. Remember you’re always free to ask any questions or bring up any concerns you might have.
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