cancer cells under microscope guide

Observing Cancer Cells Under The Microscope

One of the more useful and essential uses of microscopy is in identifying, analyzing, and treating certain diseases, ranging anywhere from bacterial and viral infections, to something a lot more serious and fatal, such as cancer.

There are a lot of distinctive differences between cancer cells and normal cells when it comes to appearance, characteristics, behavior, lifespan, metabolism, and so on. As such, observing cancer cells under a microscope offers a lot of important information.

But first, it’s important to have an idea of what cancer cells are, what they look like, and how they behave, so you can make more accurate observations when you view them through a microscope lens.

What are cancer cells?

Cancer is generally defined as a disease that’s caused by aberrant mitosis, which happens when normal cells in the body reproduce at an uncontrollable amount, thus creating what we know as cancer cells. 

Hence, cancer cells are cells with mutated genes that respond and behave abnormally, meaning, they don’t have the lifespan of normal cells, but rather act as invasive organisms that attack certain body parts, resulting in tumors and secondary malignant growth.

These destructive cells pose a lot of negative effects on the other cells and body parts surrounding them, such as in vivo and in vitro multiplication, a heavily altered metabolism, increased levels of fatigue, and the production of angiogenic factors.

What are the characteristics of cancer cells?

Apart from how they affect the human body and the person’s overall health and wellness, cancer cells feature a lot of unique characteristics on their own. This is partly why they are fairly easy to identify through a variety of microscopy techniques and other medical procedures.

These characteristics include abnormal shapes and sizes, and their incapability to perform normal cell functions, which includes self-repair and apoptosis. Cancer cells also appear cluttered, as they do not attach to other cells, unlike normal cells.

Perhaps the most pressing issue when it comes to cancer cells is that they don’t die like normal cells are supposed to, and when this is coupled with the fact that they mutate at a rapid state, it creates a lot of problems as these cancer cells destroy the body.

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Here is a microscope image of breast cancer cells that are undergoing a new type of electromagnetic field treatment. Notice how the cells greatly vary in terms of size, shape, and organization.

How do cancer cells look under the microscope?

Cancer cells and normal cells have a huge difference just in terms of appearance when viewed under a microscope. For one thing, cancer cells may either be much smaller or larger than normal cells. These cells are also abnormally shaped, including the nucleus.

The cell nuclei contains plenty of excess DNA and an abnormal amount of haphazardly distributed chromosomes, making them appear with blebs, and much larger and darker than the nuclei of normal cells, which looks spherical. 

Below are detailed steps on how to observe cancer cells under a microscope, starting from what types of microscopes you can use, all the materials and supplies you will need, how the cancer cell samples should be prepared, and what you should expect to see under the microscope.

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Take a look at these images of cancer cells taken from a modern handheld device, compared with images of the same cells taken through more sophisticated equipment. While there is a disparity in color and resolution, the general details of the cancer cells are largely the same.

How to observe cancer cells under a microscope

A variety of microscopy techniques can be used to observe cancer cells, such as by using an electron microscope, or even a light microscope. What’s important to remember, however, is that certain films and staining techniques are required to view the cancer cells properly.

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Here is a relatively simple method of viewing cancer cells under a microscope by using a confocal microscope. This method works excellent for squamous-cell carcinoma.

Here is an image of morpheaform basal cell carcinoma causing a cancerous tumor. While this microscope image has been digitally enhanced for color variation, you’ll notice that several sections, big and small, are clearly defined.

What you’ll need

To proceed with this activity, there are a few things that you will be needing, including, of course, the confocal microscope to view the cancer cells.

  • Specimen sample of carcinoma cancer cells from the buccal mucosa
  • An acridine orange (AO) stain for dyeing the specimen
  • A phosphate buffer solution, 100% alcohol, 1% acetic acid, and distilled water
  • Cotton swabs, glass microscope slides, and coverslips

Sample preparation

Before the cancer cells can be viewed under a microscope, it needs to first undergo some form of sample preparation. Here is what you need to do to prepare a sample slide of carcinoma cancer cells:

  1. Collect a small amount of the specimen by using a wooden stick or a cotton swab, and smear this sample generously on a microscope slide.
  2. Using ample amounts of 100% alcohol, fix the specimen sample for about 15 minutes, then rinse the slide for a few seconds with a 1% acetic acid. Afterward, wash the sample slide twice for around a minute by running it through distilled water.
  3. The next step is to stain the sample for a minimum of three minutes by using 0.1 acridine orange, before de-staining it for a minute with the phosphate buffer solution. Make sure to differentiate the sample for another minute in 0.1 M NaCl.
  4. Finally, using the remaining phosphate buffer solution, wash off the excess NaCl, and then using a dropper or a pipette, place a drop of the prepared sample solution on the microscope slide, and mount it carefully on the microscope stage.


What you’ll see

The process of observing the cancer cells through the microscope depends on the type of microscope you are using. Having said that, you should be able to see plenty of nuclear change, as well as distinguish the nuclei from the cytoplasm.

How these cellular structures will appear also depends on the stain you use. For example, with acridine orange, the nucleus should appear green, while the cytoplasm should be a duller and darker shade of green.

Or, if you opt to use Papanicolaou in staining the cancer cells, you’ll notice that the nuclei, which appear as pinkish, become a lot more pronounced, while the cytoplasm becomes more transparent.

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These side by side microscope images of two different types of brain cancer cells on children show how important it is to use the highest quality microscopes in analyzing cancerous cells, and to couple this with advanced medical techniques to correctly diagnose the disease.


Cancer cells are invasive and dangerous mutations in the body that are not only detrimental to health, but can often even be fatal. There are many different types of cancers, and as such, cancer cells, depending on what type of cell they originated from, where they are located, and how they affect the body of the person with the disease.

Being able to observe and study cancer cells through a microscope is therefore highly important in finding out the best possible way to stop their spread and cure the disease.


Last update on 2024-06-12 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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