Surgery to diagnose and stage cancer

For most cancers you will need further tests to make a diagnosis. These tests may involve a surgical procedure.

Learn more about:

Listen to our podcasts on Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis and Making Treatment Decisions


A biopsy is a procedure to remove abnormal tissue or a sample of cells from the affected area. A biopsy may be done under a local or general anaesthetic. It is sometimes done in the doctor’s rooms, but it may also be done at a radiology practice, in hospital, or as day surgery.

After the biopsy, a pathologist examines the sample under a microscope to see if it contains cancer cells. The initial results are usually available in a few days, though the full report can take up to 10 days.

A biopsy is often done using an ultrasound or CT scan to guide the needle to the correct place. Common types of biopsy used to diagnose and stage cancer include:

  • fine needle aspiration – a thin needle is used to remove a sample of fluid and tissue from the tumour
  • punch biopsy – a special tool is used to remove a circle of skin
  • core biopsy – a hollow needle is inserted through the skin to remove a thin core of tissue
  • incisional biopsy – part of the tumour is cut out
  • excisional biopsy – the whole tumour is cut out, along with a narrow margin of healthy tissue
  • surgical biopsy – the surgeon cuts into the body to remove all or part of the tumour; various surgical tools can be used depending on the part of the body affected
  • endoscopic biopsy/endoscopy – a long, thin, flexible tube with a light and a camera is inserted into the body through a small cut or a natural opening such as the mouth. The doctor views images of the body on a TV or computer screen and takes a tissue sample. There are many types of endoscopy named after the part of the body affected, e.g. colonoscopy (colon), hysteroscopy (uterus), gastroscopy (stomach).

Staging surgery

Staging is the process of working out how large the cancer is and whether it has spread to other areas of the body. Some cancers are staged surgically. This means that the surgery to remove the cancer will help the doctor work out how far the tumour has spread throughout the body. All tissue and fluids removed during staging surgery are examined for cancer cells by a pathologist.

Knowing the stage of a cancer helps the doctor recommend the best treatment for you. Some cancers are also given a grade, which describes how abnormal the cancer cells are and how fast they are growing.

Sometimes diagnostic and staging surgery removes all of the cancer, and you don’t need further surgery or treatment. For specific information about staging a certain type of cancer, talk to your medical team or go to specific cancer types and navigate to the staging page.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on surgery.

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit:


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit:

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit:

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in April 2019
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum

Online Community
Check out this supportive online community for people affected by cancer

Cancer Connect
Talk to someone who has experienced cancer

Cancer information

What is cancer?
How cancer starts and spreads

Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope

Other cancer treatments
Learn about the other cancer treatments that are used to treat cancer