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Health Library : Cancer Center

 

Cancer Diagnosis - Tumor Biopsy

How is cancer diagnosed?

There is no single test that can accurately diagnose cancer. The complete evaluation of a patient usually requires a thorough history and physical examination along with diagnostic testing. Many tests are needed to determine whether a person has cancer, or if another condition (such as an infection) is mimicking the symptoms of cancer. Effective diagnostic testing is used to confirm or eliminate the presence of disease, monitor the disease process, and to plan for and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment. In some cases, it is necessary to repeat testing when a person’s condition has changed, if a sample collected was not of good quality, or an abnormal test result needs to be confirmed. Diagnostic procedures for cancer may include imaging, laboratory tests (including tests for tumor markers), tumor biopsy, endoscopic examination, surgery, or genetic testing.

What are the different types of tumor biopsies?

A biopsy is a procedure performed to remove tissue or cells from the body for examination under a microscope. Some biopsies can be performed in a physician's office, while others need to be done in a hospital setting. In addition, some biopsies require use of an anesthetic to numb the area, while others do not require any sedation.

Biopsies are usually performed to determine whether a tumor is malignant (cancerous) or to determine the cause of an unexplained infection or inflammation. The following are the most common types of biopsies:

  • endoscopic biopsy
    This type of biopsy is performed through a fiberoptic endoscope (a long, thin tube that has a close-focusing telescope on the end for viewing) through a natural body orifice (i.e., rectum) or a small incision (i.e., arthroscopy). The endoscope is used to view the organ in question for abnormal or suspicious areas, in order to obtain a small amount of tissue for study. Endoscopic procedures are named for the organ or body area to be visualized and/or treated. The physician can insert the endoscope into the colon (colonoscopy), bladder (cystoscopy), abdominal cavity (laparoscopy), joint cavity (arthroscopy), mid-portion of the chest (mediastinoscopy), or trachea and bronchial system (laryngoscopy and bronchoscopy).
  • bone marrow biopsy
    This type of biopsy is performed either from the sternum (breastbone) or the iliac crest hipbone (the bone area on either side of the pelvis on the lower back area). The skin is cleansed and a local anesthetic is given to numb the area. A long, rigid needle is inserted into the marrow, and cells are aspirated for study; this step is occasionally uncomfortable. A core biopsy (removing a small bone 'chip' from the marrow) may follow the aspiration.
  • excisional or incisional biopsy
    This type of biopsy is often used when a suspected tumor is near the surface of the skin. Using a scalpel (surgical knife), the surgeon removes the tumor for further examination, and the wound is sutured (sewed shut with surgical thread). When the entire tumor is removed, it is called excisional biopsy technique. If only a portion of the tumor is removed, it is called incisional biopsy technique. Excisional biopsy is often the method usually preferred when melanoma (a type of skin cancer) is suspected. Both types of biopsies can be performed by using local or regional anesthesia. If the tumor is inside the chest or abdomen, general anesthesia is used.
  • fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy
    This type of biopsy involves using a thin, hollow needle and syringe to remove very small pieces from a tumor. Local anesthetic is sometimes used to numb the area, but the test rarely causes much discomfort and leaves no scar. An ultrasound or computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) - an x-ray procedure that produces cross-sectional images of the body - may be used to guide a needle into a tumor in an internal organ such as the lung or liver.
  • punch biopsy
    Punch biopsies involve taking a deeper sample of skin with a biopsy instrument that removes a short cylinder, or "apple core," of tissue. After a local anesthetic is administered, the instrument is rotated on the surface of the skin until it cuts through all the layers, including the dermis, epidermis, and the most superficial parts of the subcutis (fat).
  • shave biopsy
    This type of biopsy involves removing the top layers of skin by shaving it off. Shaved biopsies are used to diagnose some basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers, but they are not recommended for suspected melanomas of the skin. Shave biopsies are also performed with a local anesthetic.
  • skin biopsy
    Skin biopsies involve removing a sample of skin for examination under the microscope to determine if cancer is present. The biopsy is performed under local anesthesia. The patient usually just feels a small needle stick and a little burning for about a minute, with a little pressure, but no pain.

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