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Biopsies - what are they and how do they work?

A biopsy means taking a small body tissue sample from somewhere in the body and examining it very closely under the microscope. Biopsies are usually taken during medical tests or operations. For example, your doctor may take a biopsy during an endoscopy. An endoscopy is an examination that looks at the inside of your oesophagus (food pipe) and stomach.

Your doctor sends the biopsy sample to the laboratory. A pathologist looks at the cells very closely under the microscope to see if they are normal or not. Cancer cells look quite different to normal cells. But even so, the pathologist can usually tell what type of body cell it was originally. 

Biopsies are very important in medicine. It is virtually impossible to diagnose some types of cancer any other way. Often, the only way to be sure of the diagnosis is to actually look for cancer cells under the microscope.

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Updated: 15 December 2014