Biopsy for mouth cancer

To diagnose mouth or oropharyngeal cancer your specialist needs to take a sample of tissue from the affected area. This is called a biopsy.

A pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope to see if there are any cancer cells. 

Types of biopsy

Your doctor removes a small piece of tissue and sends it to the laboratory. There are different ways of looking at the back of your mouth and airways, and taking a biopsy.

Scalpel biopsy

A scalpel biopsy means cutting out a small piece of tissue from the affected area. Your doctor injects some local anaesthetic into the area to numb it. Then the doctor cuts round the biopsy area, gently lifts the piece of tissue using a pair of tweezers and cuts it off. This is uncomfortable but only lasts a short time.

For many people, the most uncomfortable part is the local anaesthetic injection.


A nasoendoscopy (sometimes spelt nasendoscopy) or laryngoscopy looks at all your upper air passages. This includes the back of your throat (the pharynx).

The specialist passes a narrow, flexible telescope (a nasoendoscope) up your nose and down your throat. It can be a bit uncomfortable, so your doctor may use an anaesthetic spray to numb your throat first. But if you have the anaesthetic spray you can’t eat or drink until it wears off, so you may choose not to have it.

If the specialist sees any abnormal area in your throat, they will need to take a biopsy from that area.


A panendoscope is a series of connected tubes with a camera and light at one end, and an eyepiece at the other. Your specialist can look at your upper airways and remove a piece of tissue.

You have a panendoscopy under general anaesthetic. The doctor gently puts the panendoscope up your nose and down into your throat. They will look at your:

  • pharynx (throat)
  • larynx (voice box)
  • oesophagus (food pipe)
  • trachea (windpipe)
  • bronchi (breathing tubes)

This is because people with mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are at a greater risk of developing cancers in other areas of the head and neck.

Talk to your doctor before the test if you are taking medicines to thin the blood (anticoagulants)

After your test

You can usually go home after your test. 

Your doctor will give you instructions about how to look after your mouth after the test. You might have a few stitches.

Your doctor will tell you if you have stitches in your mouth. Stitches are often dissolvable and will disappear on their own. Your doctor will tell you if you need the stitches removed. 

Getting your results

It might take a little time to get your results. It is useful to ask how long you should expect to wait and who will discuss the results with you.

Waiting for results can be an anxious time for some people. It might be useful to talk to someone close to you.

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 is a very safe procedure, but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. The possible risks include infection or bleeding.

Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a biopsy outweigh these possible risks.