Science Made Simple: About Biopsies

Science Made Simple Biopsies

Simply put, a biopsy is a surgical procedure that involves removing a piece of tissue, cell sample or fluid from part of the body, to determine if cancer cells are present. A biopsy is performed in a medical facility, and is often an out-patient procedure, meaning it does not require a hospital stay. Some biopsies, for instance biopsies on some internal organs, may require brief hospitalization. 

There are several different types of biopsy procedures, depending on the type and location of the area being investigated:

  • Needle biopsy: a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle
  • Incisional biopsy: only a sample of tissue is removed
  • Excisional biopsy: an entire lump or suspicious area is removed

Prior to biopsy, a local anesthetic or general anesthesia may be used, or in some cases, the patient may be sedated. Following a biopsy, the removed tissue or fluids will be examined. Results will be sent back to the referring doctor, who will discuss with the patient. The time from biopsy to results can take anywhere from a few minutes to a week, depending on the type of biopsy and the medical facilities involved.

Are biopsies used to detect ovarian cancer?

Biopsies have an important place in detecting ovarian cancer, as they are the only way to confirm presence of ovarian cancer cells. But because of the location of the ovaries, and the nature of ovarian cancers, biopsies are only performed once there is a strong suspicion of ovarian cancer.

Doctors typically do not perform incisional or needle biopsies for suspected ovarian cancer because there is a risk that the procedure may cause any cancer cells present to spread. In some cases, these biopsies may be performed on other areas of the body to investigate whether ovarian cancer has metastasized. 

If preliminary tests and exams do suggest presence of ovarian cancer, then an excisional surgical biopsy is needed to confirm. At this stage of the process, patients are advised to see a gynecologic oncologist prior to surgery, because research shows that people treated by gynecologic oncologists have better outcomes.

Where can I learn more about how ovarian cancer is diagnosed?

There is no individual test that can reliably detect ovarian cancer; instead, if a person has signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, a combination of tests may be used. Pelvic exams, transvaginal or pelvic ultrasound, CT scans and CA-125 may all have a place in investigating possible ovarian cancer or in monitoring high-risk individuals.

Without a reliable screening or early detection test, it’s important to know common symptoms and risk factors for ovarian cancer, and to be familiar with your own personal ovarian cancer risk.

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