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Health and Fitness News

Getting Answers

Need a biopsy? Knowing what to expect can help calm your nerves.

There’s nothing more frightening than a strange lump, a suspicious mole, or concerning symptoms. Your mind fills with what-ifs and all kinds of questions. Could it be cancer?

When your suspicions can’t be taken away with a routine physical, your doctor will likely order a series of tests to make a definitive diagnosis. If the first tests don’t rule cancer out, you’ll likely have to undergo is a biopsy.

What is a biopsy and why is one done? What happens during the procedure and when will you hear the results? Keep reading to find out the answers to these nerve-wracking questions.

What Is It?

While physical exams, x-rays, and scans are helpful in finding abnormalities in the body, they can’t diagnose disease or differentiate between cancerous and noncancerous cells. This is why a biopsy is often necessary. During the test, a small sample of cells in the suspicious area are collected and sent to a laboratory for testing.

Though it may sound scary, most biopsies are outpatient procedures and require little preparation. However, before your biopsy, tell your doctor of any medications or supplements you’re taking as well as any allergies you have. You will likely need to stop taking blood thinner medications and may not be able to eat or drink for eight hours prior to the procedure. A biopsy appointment generally takes less than an hour. Though a quick procedure, you may want someone to drive you home afterword.

Why They’re Done

The main reason biopsies are performed is to determine whether a mass is noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant), but there are many other reasons to have a biopsy. Biopsies can also help diagnose autoimmune diseases, inflammatory conditions, liver diseases, nerve conditions, and infections. They are even used to match organ transplant tissues.

How They’re Performed

Biopsies are done either by removing tissue with a needle or by surgically removing an entire suspicious area on the skin or mass in the body.

With a needle biopsy, tissue samples are collected in one of three ways, all using a hollow biopsy needle that is usually several inches long to collect cells. Fine needle aspiration uses a thin needle and syringe to withdraw fluid or cells. Core needle biopsies use an automated mechanism to move and fill the needle. A vacuum-assisted biopsy utilizes a vacuum device to pull the tissue up in to the needle.

Regardless of the technique used, several specimens may be taken for an accurate diagnosis. Radiologists often use the guidance of an ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, fluoroscopy, or x-ray to perform a biopsy. When the procedure is finished, the area is covered with a bandage.

Because the procedure can cause anxiety, you may be given an IV of sedation medication to help you relax. A nurse may also inject a local anesthetic to numb the site of the biopsy. When this happens, you feel a sharp pinch and some pressure, and the area may be sore for several days. Children are often giving general anesthesia during a biopsy.

When You Get Results

Tissue samples collected during a biopsy are sent to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope. An analysis of the cells’ size, type, shape, and behaviors help lead the pathologist to a diagnosis.

If cancer is present, the pathologist’s examination will reveal the type and how aggressive it is. The biopsy report is then sent to your doctor. This process usually takes a few days, so ask your doctor when and how you can expect to hear the results. You may need to schedule a follow-up appointment to review the results.

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