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How Biopsies Diagnose Oral Cancer

A biopsy is a small sample of tissue that your doctor takes from a suspicious area. A specialized doctor, called a pathologist, examines this sample under a microscope to check for cancer. Samples may be taken from your mouth and from lymph nodes in your neck. The biopsy may be done in the doctor’s office or at the hospital.

These are three ways to take a biopsy to check for oral cancer.

Exfoliative Cytology

Your doctor may scrape some cells from the suspicious lesion and put them on a slide. This can be done in a doctor’s office. The sample is then stained with a dye so the cells can be seen under the microscope. If any of the cells look abnormal, the area can be biopsied. The advantage of this technique is that it is easy, and even minimally abnormal-looking areas can be examined. This can make for an earlier diagnosis and a greater chance of cure if there is cancer. But this method does not detect all cancers. Sometimes it’s not possible to tell the difference between cancerous cells and abnormal, but noncancerous, cells with this approach, so a biopsy would still be needed.

Incisional Biopsy

Your doctor may cut out a small sample of tissue. If the suspicious area is easy to reach, your doctor can numb your mouth and do this in his office. If the area is deeper in the mouth or throat, this is done in the operating room. The surgeon uses special instruments through an endoscope to remove small tissue samples.

Fine-Needle Aspiration

Your doctor may have noticed a lump in your neck. If so, he or she uses a thin needle to remove a small sample of tissue. This can be done in a doctor’s office.

Once the biopsy is completed, the pathologist examines the tissue samples in a lab. He or she looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. It usually takes several days for the results of your biopsy to come back. A biopsy is the only sure way to tell if you have cancer and what kind of cancer it is.

“How Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Diagnosed?” American Cancer Society. February 26, 2013. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/oralcavityandoropharyngealcancer/detailedguide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-diagnosis Accessed 2013.

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