Biopsy through the skin for lung cancer

This test is called a percutaneous lung biopsy. Your doctor takes a sample of lung tissue by passing a needle into the lung. 

You might have this test if your doctor has seen an abnormal looking area in your lung or airways using an x-ray or CT scan.

Diagram showing the lungs including the alveoli

Doctors can take a small amount of lung tissue (biopsy) from the abnormal area using a fine needle. A pathologist then looks at the tissue down a microscope to see exactly what the abnormality is.

You normally have a biopsy as a day case procedure in the imaging department of the hospital. A doctor called a radiologist might use a CT scanner or ultrasound to help guide the biopsy.

Preparing for your biopsy

Check your appointment letter for how exactly to prepare.

You sign a consent form before the test. This is a good time to make sure you ask the doctor any questions you have.

Take your usual medicines as normal unless your doctor tells you otherwise. If you take medicines to thin your blood, you need to stop them before your biopsy. Your doctor will tell you when to stop them.

Local anaesthetic

You have the biopsy under a local anaesthetic. So you are awake during the biopsy but the area is numb. You should be able to eat and drink normally beforehand.

Before the biopsy

When you arrive at the department, a nurse asks you to change into a gown. Then they show you to the test room.

You lie either on your tummy or your back on the procedure couch, depending on where the abnormal lung cells are.

The team use either CT or ultrasound scanning equipment to make sure they know the right place to take the sample from. This can take some time but won’t hurt.

Having the biopsy

Your doctor cleans your skin and then numbs the area with local anaesthetic. They ask you to hold your breath while they put a fine needle through your skin and into your lung.

When the needle is in, the team uses CT or ultrasound scanning equipment to make sure the tip is in the right place.

Your doctor then takes out some tissue through the needle and into a syringe. They send the tissue to a laboratory to look at under a microscope and find out what it is.

The actual biopsy only takes a few minutes.

Diagram showing a percutaneous lung biopsy

After your biopsy

You might need to stay in hospital overnight. 

Your nurse monitors you closely for a few hours. They check your heart rate and oxygen levels, using a clip on your finger. This doesn’t hurt. They check your blood pressure regularly, using a cuff on your arm. Your nurse makes sure any pain you have is under control. Ask for painkillers if you need them.

You might need to lie as still as you can for an hour or so. You then usually have a chest x-ray.

You have a waterproof dressing over your biopsy site. Your nurse will tell you how to look after the dressing over the next few days.

You need to take things easy for a couple of days after the biopsy.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. Contact your doctor if you haven’t heard anything after this time.

Waiting for test results or for further tests can be very worrying. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For support and information, you can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, from Monday to Friday.

Possible risks

A biopsy through your skin is a very safe procedure. But your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a biopsy outweigh these possible risks.

The possible risks include:


You might see a small amount of blood in your spit after the test. Let your doctor or nurse know if this doesn’t go away.

Chest infection

See your doctor straight away if your phlegm (sputum) changes colour, you feel more breathless or feel as though you have a temperature. Tell them if the dressing over the biopsy site has lots of ooze on it.

Needing extra oxygen

You might need oxygen through a mask for a while after the biopsy. If you normally have oxygen at home you might need to have more than usual for a time.

A collapsed lung (pneumothorax)

Air or gas can collect in the space around the lung and make it collapse, but this is rare. Contact a doctor if you become short of breath or have chest pain. You have a tube put into the lung to remove the air.

Let your doctor know if you are due to fly soon after your biopsy. They can give you advice about how long you should wait before taking a flight.

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