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Biopsy (taking a tissue sample)

A biopsy is not a common test for salivary gland cancer. You might have it if your doctor thinks you have cancer of the minor salivary glands.

What a biopsy is

Your specialist takes 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 there.

Why you have it

The most common test to diagnose salivary gland cancer is a fine needle aspiration (FNA).

Types of biopsy

There are two main ways your doctor can look at your mouth and airways or take the biopsy sample.

Open biopsy

An open biopsy is also called an incisional biopsy. It 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 your doctor takes out the small sample of tissue.

This is uncomfortable but only lasts a short time.

Panendoscopy

A panendoscope is a series of connected tubes that a head and neck surgeon uses to look at your upper airways. There is a camera and light at one end, and an eyepiece at the other. Your specialist can use it to remove a sample of the affected tissue.

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

You might have a panendoscopy if you have an abnormal area that is difficult for your doctors to access.

Before the biopsy

You sign a consent form beforehand. 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 medicine to thin your blood, you might need to stop it before your biopsy. Your doctor tells you when to stop it.

After your test

You can usually go home the same day. You need someone to collect you and to make sure that you get home safely if you have had a general anaesthetic.

Your doctor gives you instructions about how to look after the biopsy area after the test. Your doctor will let know 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.

You might have some soreness or pain. Your doctor can advise you which painkillers to take for a few days.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. 

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

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

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

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.

Last reviewed: 
22 Oct 2019
  • Management of Salivary Gland Tumours: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    S Sood and others
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, Supplement 2

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    L Dougherty and S Lister
    Wiley-Black, 2015

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