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Diagnosing diseases by looking at single cells and small clusters of cells is called cytology or cytopathology. It’s an important part of diagnosing some types of cancer.
Compared with tissue biopsy, a cytology specimen usually:
The disadvantage is that, in some cases, a tissue biopsy result is more accurate, but in many cases the cytology fluid may be just as accurate.
Cytology tests may be used for diagnosis or for screening:
Often, a diagnostic test is used if a screening test result is positive (that is, if something is found on the screening test). Some cytology tests, such as the Pap test, are mainly used for screening, while others can accurately identify cancers (see “Scrape or brush cytology” below). When cytology results show cancer, often a biopsy is also done to be sure before treatment is started.
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) is sometimes considered a cytology test and is sometimes considered a biopsy. It’s discussed in Types of biopsies used to look for cancer.
Fluids taken from cavities (spaces) in the body can be tested to see if cancer cells are present. Some of the body cavity fluids tested in this way include:
Another cytology technique is to gently scrape or brush some cells from the organ or tissue being tested. The best-known cytology test that samples cells this way is the Pap test. A small spatula and/or brush is used to remove cells from the cervix (the lower part of the uterus or womb) for a Pap test. Other areas that can be brushed or scraped include the esophagus (swallowing tube), stomach, bronchi (breathing tubes that lead to the lungs), and mouth.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Last Revised: July 30, 2015
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