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A biopsy is a type of test used to diagnose cancer, and other conditions, including ulcers, hepatitis, kidney disease and endometriosis.

A small sample of tissue is removed and then examined under a microscope. This test may be used to diagnose cancer or to see whether or not existing cancer has spread to the surrounding tissue. For example, a biopsy is needed to diagnose colorectal cancer. It is often done during a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.

What happens during a biopsy?

To avoid pain, local anaesthetic is typically used for biopsies as a day-patient. If larger samples are needed, general anaesthetic may be used, which may require staying in hospital overnight.

How a biopsy is carried out will depend on the part of the body under investigation by doctors. Biopsy types include:

Scraping cells - in which cells are taken from the surface layer of tissue, for example from inside the cervix during a cervical screening test

Punch biopsy - a special instrument is used for certain skin conditions which punches a small hole in the skin to take a sample

Needle biopsy
- a hollow needle is guided by ultrasound to take tissue

Endoscopic biopsy
- a device called an endoscope - a long flexible tube with a tiny camera - is used to take a tissue sample from locations such as the stomach

Excisional biopsy
- surgery is carried out where a larger sample of tissue is required

Perioperative biopsy
- a sample is taken and tested during an operation

What happens after a biopsy?

The after effects of a biopsy are generally mild. Slight discomfort and light bleeding are to be expected. However, infections and injuries, for example to the colon or rectum, do occasionally occur.

You should seek medical advice immediately if you experience:

  • Severe pain
  • Heavy bleeding (greater than a teaspoon at a time)
  • Fever or chills

Biopsy test results

Depending on the type of test, results may be available on the day, or for some tests, such as cervical screening, in a couple of weeks. They may be given in person, at a clinic, via GPs or arrive in the post.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on June 28, 2016

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