Learning About Pathology Tests

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What are they?

Pathology tests are tests to look at samples of the body's tissues under a microscope. The tests help your doctor find or check on a condition.

The tissue may come from a biopsy test, where a small piece of tissue is removed. Or it may come from removing an abnormal area (like a mole). It may even come from a whole organ.

Blood, body fluids, and cells (like a Pap smear) may also be tested.

Other tests may be done on a sample. These can include chemical tests and DNA tests to look for problems with genes.

What is a pathologist?

A pathologist is a medical doctor who is in charge of the labs that analyze tissue, blood, and body fluid samples. They look at these samples to help find out if you have a disease or health problem. A pathologist may also do autopsies.

Why are these tests done?

A pathology test on a tissue sample, blood, or body fluid is done to:

Diagnose a health problem.

A doctor can find out if a problem is cancer, and if so, what type of cancer it is. A doctor also can learn if symptoms are coming from a different problem, such as infection or inflammation. A pathology test may also be done to check the results of a test or exam done for other reasons, such as a screening test for cancer.

Find out how bad a problem is.

When a doctor looks at tissue under a microscope, they can see if the cells don't look normal. The doctor also can find out if a problem has spread within an area or to other areas. What the cancer cells look like under the microscope can also help the doctor stage a cancer. Staging is a process that doctors use to describe how severe a cancer is.

See if a problem is getting better with treatment.

Your doctor can keep track of changes in your health by looking at tissue samples over time.

Make sure that problem tissue is gone.

After a mole or growth has been removed, a doctor can look at the tissue under the microscope to make sure that there are no more problem cells.

What will your doctor do with your test results?

In most cases, your doctor will combine the pathology test results with an exam and other tests to make a diagnosis or plan treatments.

Sometimes tissue samples aren't easy to read. Different doctors may have different thoughts on what an area looks like under a microscope. It may help to have more than one doctor give an opinion.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.