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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 (gullet) and stomach.

The biopsy sample is sent to the laboratory and the cells are looked at very closely under the microscope to see if they are normal or cancer cells. Cancer cells look quite different to normal cells. They are often more primitive looking and have oddly shaped nuclei compared to a normal cell. Even so, you can usually tell what type of body cell it was originally. Doctors can sometimes tell from biopsies where in the body a cancer has started.

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: 4 May 2011