Why a Biopsy Is Performed

Understanding Biopsies: How and What They Mean

liver biopsy supporting with Ultrasound
Liver biopsy supported with ultrasound. Getty Images/choja

A biopsy is the process of taking a sample of living tissue for examination under a microscope. Many different types of tissue can be biopsied, including skin, bone, organs and other soft tissues.  This is typically done to diagnose disease.  

Who Examines Biopsies?

A pathologist is a physician who specializes in diagnosing disease by examining samples of bodily fluids and tissues. A pathologist has completed medical school and additional years of residency during which specialized training is completed in order to learn to process and interpret samples.


These individuals are highly skilled at looking at samples and determining if a disease process is present.  Some pathologists are even more specialized, focused on looking at certain types of tissues, such as skin or breast tissue. These physicians have often completed additional training after residency, called a fellowship.

Why a Biopsy is Performed

In order to best treat an illness, the nature of that illness must be determined.  For example, if a woman feels a lump in her breast, she would likely have a mammogram performed to determine the nature of the lump.  If the lump has the potential to be cancerous, the next step might be a biopsy, taking a small sample, or multiple samples, of the lump so that the tissue can be closely examined by a pathologist.   

It is very important to have an accurate diagnosis so that appropriate treatment can be provided.  An individual who does not have cancer should never receive chemotherapy, just as a patient with cancer should be diagnosed as quickly as possible so appropriate treatment can be provided which may include surgery.

How a Biopsy is Performed

The way the biopsy is performed is determined by the tissue that needs to be examined.  A bone biopsy cannot be collected the same way a skin biopsy can.  For a simple skin biopsy, the procedure can be as simple as "shaving" a few layers of skin and collecting those shavings.

 As you can imagine, a bone biopsy or a brain biopsy is far more difficult.  Some biopsies require surgery to collect the sample.  

For other types of samples, If a biopsy is difficult to obtain, it can be taken using a CT scan to guide the physician taking the sample. They are also taken by a small pair of pinchers, used to grasp and tug a small amount of tissue free in order to remove it, if the area can be reached. This pinching process can be done in the esophagus and airway, using special equipment. 

Pronunciation: buy-op-see

Also Known As: needle biopsy, guided biopsy, bone biopsy, tissue biopsy, skin biopsy, liver biopsy, prostate biopsy, kidney biopsy, lymph nodes biopsy, brain biopsy, tumor biopsy, brush biopsy, fine biopsy, tissue biopsy, bone marrow biopsy, percutaneous biopsy

Examples: The tumor was biopsied to determine if it was cancerous or if it was a benign growth.

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