Biopsy Myth Busted

Cancer biopsy called fine needle aspiration did not spread pancreatic cancer and led to better health outcomes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Sometimes a biopsy is just a biopsy. This cancer screening procedure didn't spread cancer cells in patients, despite a myth that it might.

New research from the Mayo Clinic concluded that myths about biopsies spreading cancer truly were just myths. Patients in this study who had a biopsy for pancreatic cancer lived longer and had better outcomes than those who did not have a biopsy.

Researchers noted that a biopsy can confirm a diagnosis and prevent unnecessary surgery.

“This study shows that physicians and patients should feel reassured that a biopsy is very safe,” said lead study author Michael B. Wallace, MD, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL, in a press release. “We do millions of biopsies of cancer a year in the U.S., but one or two case studies have led to this common myth that biopsies spread cancer.”

A biopsy, Dr. Wallace said, can provide “very valuable information that allow us to tailor treatment. In some cases, we can offer chemotherapy and radiation before surgery for a better outcome, and in other cases, we can avoid surgery and other therapy altogether.”

Dr. Wallace and team evaluated a common cancer biopsy technique known as fine needle aspiration (FNA). This technique uses a thin, hollow needle to remove cells from a tumor. This procedure is much less invasive than surgery.

In a past small study, Dr. Wallace and team found no difference in cancer recurrence between those patients who had FNA and those who did not. For the current study, these researchers evaluated more than 2,000 patients with pancreatic cancer who had surgery.

Some patients in this study received other cancer treatment like surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Almost 500 of the patients had FNA. Overall, those who had FNA lived longer than those who did not have FNA.

At the time of this study, many doctors would not perform FNA biopsies because they felt the risk of spreading cancer cells from the tumor was too high.

Although it is rare, medical literature does have a few case reports on patients in which cancer cells were spread by FNA.

During the biopsy, the needle is withdrawn from the tumor and passes through the abdominal cavity. Because the biopsy needle may have cancer cells in it, health care professionals feared the cancer cells could be spread as the needle was removed.

Dr. Wallace and team noted that their findings should also apply to biopsies for other kinds of cancer, as FNA is a common diagnostic tool. These researchers also noted that past research found that 9 percent of patients who had surgery for pancreatic cancer did not actually have the disease. FNA can prevent that sort of unnecessary surgery.

This study was published online Jan. 9 in the journal Endoscopy.

The authors disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
January 12, 2015
Last Updated:
January 13, 2015