Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Biopsy

A biopsy is helpful in diagnosing and monitoring many conditions

A biopsy is a sample of a small amount of tissue or cells that will be examined in a laboratory. They are commonly used to diagnose cancer or estimate how far cancer has spread.

Biopsies can be taken in several different ways. In a skin or muscle biopsy, a small cut is made in the skin using a scalpel, and some skin or muscle is removed. In a needle biopsy, a hollow needle is inserted into the skin to remove a sample of an organ deeper inside the body, such as a kidney or breast. A biopsy needle might be "guided" by ultrasound scanning or CT scanning to accurately locate the area to be sampled.

A biopsy sample on a table

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Biopsies are also taken during endoscopic procedures, such as a colonoscopy, using an instrument at the end of the endoscope. These are all outpatient procedures, but an open biopsy is part of a surgical operation, where a body cavity such as the chest or abdomen is opened. This procedure will require general anesthesia and a short hospital stay in order to recover.

What a Biopsy Is Used For

A biopsy is used to obtain bits of tissue to be checked in the laboratory for signs of cancer or other diseases. The biopsy sample is stained and examined under a microscope in the lab. This close examination can help the laboratory technician to determine if the sample is normal, part of a noncancerous (benign) tumor, or a cancerous (malignant) tumor.

The type of cancer might also be identified at this time, which will be used to evaluate the chance that the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. A biopsy may also be used to identify causes of inflammation and infection.


The preparation for a biopsy will differ based on the type of biopsy procedure being done. A skin or muscle biopsy usually won't require any modification of diet or special preparation. For an open biopsy requiring general anesthesia, you will be instructed to fast several hours before the procedure. A colonoscopy will require laxatives and enemas per your doctor's instructions, as well as a modification to your diet (usually fasting).

Remind your doctor beforehand about any allergies you have, your history of surgical procedures, and any current medications that you are taking, particularly blood-thinning medicines and aspirin. For women, also tell the doctor if there is a possibility that you could be pregnant.

How It's Done

Skin or Muscle Biopsy

The area to be biopsied is thoroughly cleaned and numbed with a local anesthetic. A sterile scalpel is used to cut away a small piece of tissue and then the wound is stitched (sutured) closed.

Open Biopsy

A sample of tissue can be cut directly from an organ. The patient is under general anesthesia in order for the organ to be exposed and the biopsy to be taken.


There is a small risk of bleeding or infection at the biopsy site, but generally, biopsy procedures are safe. Open biopsies carry some additional risks because they involve general anesthesia and surgical procedures.

Following Up

Check with your doctor to determine when the results of your biopsy will be available. In some cases, results may come back immediately, and others may take a day or two.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if you experience:

  • fever
  • pain, swelling, redness, pus or bleeding at the biopsy site
  • pain, swelling, redness, pus or bleeding at the surgical site
  • any other signs your doctor instructs you to watch for

Anything Else I Should Know?

New laboratory techniques can test biopsy samples for other elements such as proteins or a genetic change. This information can be used in making a more precise diagnosis and help determine individualized cancer therapy to fight specific cancers.

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