What Are Lymph Node Biopsies?

If your doctor says you should get a lymph node biopsy, it's because he needs to check for signs of disease, such as cancer. He takes out a small piece of one of your lymph nodes and sends it to a specialist, who will look at it under a microscope.

Lymph nodes are parts of your body that most folks aren't even aware they've got. There are hundreds of these small organs spread around inside you, and they play a key role in filtering out harmful things, including germs.

A lymph node biopsy can help diagnose cancer or see if a cancer you already have has spread. It can also look for infections that can explain why you have certain symptoms, such as swollen lymph nodes.

If your doctor wants to see if cancer that you already have, like breast cancer, has moved to a new spot, he may tell you that you need a "sentinel lymph node" biopsy. A sentinel lymph node is the first one that cancer travels to when it spreads. If there aren't any cancer cells in it, your cancer probably hasn't moved from its original location, and you likely won't need any more tests.

Types of Lymph Node Biopsies

There are three main kinds:

Fine needle aspiration (FNA). When you get this type of biopsy, it's a lot like giving a blood sample, except that your doctor uses an even thinner needle with a hollow tube in the center.

Your doctor inserts the needle into one of your lymph nodes to remove fluid and cells, which get examined later by other doctors. You'll get local anesthesia -- medicine that keeps you from feeling pain in the area where the procedure gets done.

You will usually be able to go home the same day. If the doctor doesn't get enough of a sample to make a diagnosis, you may have to get other types of biopsies.

Core needle biopsy. It's the same basic procedure as the fine needle aspiration, but your doctor uses a larger needle with a larger hollow center. With this needle, he's able to take out a small block of tissue, which gives more information than you can get from fluid and cells. You usually get local anesthesia.


With both types of needle biopsies, the doctor may have to insert the needle more than once to get enough of a sample to work with. Even then, the whole procedure should only take about 15 to 30 minutes.

Open biopsy. This is a little bit more like surgery. Your doctor cuts into your skin to remove all or part of a lymph node.

It takes more time than the other two types of lymph node biopsies. You usually get local anesthesia, but sometimes your doctor may suggest you get "general anesthesia," which means you won't be awake while it's going on. You'll probably need stitches to close up the wound, but most people don't have a scar.

Lymph node biopsies are usually very safe, although you may have a little bleeding and pain afterward. Fine needle biopsies have the least recovery time. You should be able to get up and go back to your regular activities right away. If your doctor uses general anesthesia, you will need to rest before you can pick up your life again.

What Happens After

After you've had your biopsy, your doctor sends a small sample of the lymph node to another doctor called a pathologist. He'll put it on a slide and examine it under a microscope. He'll check to see if the cells look normal or not. If he wants to know if you have cancer, he'll specifically look to see if there are any cancer cells.

With a fine needle biopsy, you may get your results the same day. For core needle and open biopsies, you will need to wait a bit longer. The amount of time depends on whether you need other tests and how many. If you don't need any, you might learn the results in 2 to 3 days after the procedure. Otherwise you may have to wait 7 to 10 days. Sometimes it can take even longer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on March 30, 2017


American Society of Clinical Oncology: "After a Biopsy: Making the Diagnosis," "Biopsy," "Reading a Pathology Report."

American Cancer Society: "Types of biopsies used to look for cancer."

National Health Service (UK): "Lymph node biopsy: Patient Information Sheet."

National Cancer Institute: "Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy."

Cedars-Sinai: "Sentinel (Blue) Lymph Node Biopsy."

The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Lymph Node Biopsy."

Stanford Health Care: "Lymph Node Biopsy."

American Cancer Society: "Lymph Nodes and Cancer."

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