Simply put, a biopsy is the collection of a tissue sample from the body for closer examination. In some cases, a doctor who analyzes these samples (called a pathologist) is looking for diseases like cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, or intestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease.
The information gathered by a biopsy can provide your healthcare team with a medical diagnosis and help guide the right type of treatment.
From needle aspirations to bone and marrow biopsies to liver, skin, and other surgical biopsy for areas that can’t be reached without a more invasive procedure, there’s a biopsy type of just about every part of the body.
The drawbacks of traditional surgical biopsy
As reliable as biopsies are, they aren’t without their drawbacks. They can be invasive and cause more pain and longer recovery for patients. Not to mention the cost—time in a CT machine or in surgery can run up a hefty bill pretty fast. In other cases, patients aren’t healthy enough to go through sedation and/or a surgical procedure or tissue samples that are collected aren’t big enough to analyze thoroughly.
Benefits of liquid biopsy
Liquid biopsies detect fragments of cancer cell DNA in the bloodstream or other bodily fluids. Your healthcare provider can analyze this DNA to learn more about the type of cancer and monitor changes in cancer cells during treatment. Even though traditional biopsy remains the gold standard of analysis, recent research has shown that the results of liquid biopsies frequently match those of their surgically collected samples. In addition, the use of liquid biopsy offers a non-invasive, quick, convenient way to monitor cancer cell changes especially in parts of the body that are difficult to biopsy surgically—like the brain. Liquid testing is also cheaper compared to surgical intervention but isn’t meant to provide a full cancer diagnoses in call cases. It is, however, a great way to monitor changes in cancer cells over time, analyze recurrences and evaluate the effectiveness of medications and therapies.
Is it right for you?
Liquid biopsies can help patients monitor and identify potential cancerous changes early—especially those who are at highest risk for developing disease. These include:
- Patients with a known predisposition to cancer (like those who carry the BRCA1 genetic mutation for breast cancer)
- A family history of cancer
- Lifestyle choices that raise the risk for cancer development like heavy smoking
- Environmental exposures to carcinogens like asbestos or radiation
- A previous personal history of cancer
Patients can opt to test quarterly, bi-annually, annually or one-time as recommended by their healthcare team but keep in mind that the results of your liquid biopsy aren’t a full diagnosis. You’ll need to have further testing to gain the greatest insight into the type of cancer and its origin.
No matter how your healthcare team chooses to implement liquid biopsies in the management or monitoring of your specific case, you can feel confident in their safety, affordability, and convenience as a key component of your care. Ask your doctor for more information.