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Biopsy for a Brain Tumor

Your doctor may decide that you need to have a biopsy. The tumor sample taken during biopsy can show if the tumor is non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant), as well as what type of brain tumor it is. This will help decide what treatment is needed. Sometimes a biopsy will not be needed based on the tumor's characteristics. Learn more about the 2 types of biopsies available.

Man in hospital gown in wheelchair. Healthcare provider is showing him head frame on table.
A head frame helps your surgeon map the site of the tumor.

Stereotactic biopsy

Stereotactic biopsy is often used if a tumor is in a part of the brain that is hard to reach or near a vital area. A special frame may be put on the head to hold it in place. The biopsy is guided by computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Before the procedure

A few days before the procedure, you will have an exam, meet with your surgeon, and sign consent forms. You will learn if you can take your usual medicines before the biopsy and will probably be told to avoid eating and drinking for at least 8 hours before the test. Before the biopsy, the hair over the area where the biopsy will be taken may be trimmed or shaved. You will have anesthesia to numb the part of your head where the surgeon will place the frame and take the biopsy.

During the procedure

During a stereotactic biopsy, the surgeon will pass a hollow needle through a small hole in the skull and into the tumor. Cells taken from the tumor will then be sent to a lab to be examined. You may be asleep (under general anesthesia) or stay awake during the biopsy.

Risks and complications of stereotactic biopsy include bleeding, seizures, and infection.  Sometimes, a stereotactic biopsy is done and an open craniotomy is needed later.

Open biopsy

An open biopsy is done through an opening in the skull (craniotomy). You will usually be asleep or sedated for this procedure. A craniotomy allows an open biopsy to be done and as much of the tumor as possible to be removed. During the procedure, the scalp is cut and a piece of skull bone is taken out. This provides access to the brain. In most cases, the bone is put back in place after the biopsy. Often an early diagnosis is made while you are still in the operating room, so the neurosurgeon has information on how extensive the surgery will be.

Before the procedure

A few days before the procedure you will have an exam, meet with your surgeon, and sign consent forms. You will learn if you can take your usual medicine before surgery and will probably be told to avoid eating and drinking for at least 8 hours before surgery. Before the biopsy, the hair over the area where the biopsy will be taken may be trimmed or shaved. You will have anesthesia to numb the part of your head where the surgeon will be operating. You may be asleep (under general anesthesia), or you may stay awake for at least part of the procedure.

Planning the return home

As with any surgery, you may need some help when you return home. Plan ahead. Have people in mind to:

  • Drive you home from the hospital and to appointments

  • Keep track of doctors’ instructions

  • Cook and take care of your house

  • Help manage bills

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 7/14/2015
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