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How Your Doctor Uses Biopsies to 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 see if it is cancerous. 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.

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.

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.