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Breast Biopsy

What is a breast biopsy?

A breast biopsy is a procedure that removes a small sample of breast tissue for testing. The tissue is looked at under a microscope to check for breast cancer. There are different ways to do a breast biopsy procedure. One method uses a special needle to remove tissue. Another method removes tissue in minor, outpatient surgery.

A breast biopsy can determine whether you have breast cancer. But most women who have a breast biopsy do not have cancer.

What is it used for?

A breast biopsy is used to confirm or rule out breast cancer. It is done after other breast tests, such as a mammogram, or a physical breast exam, show there might be a chance of breast cancer.

Why do I need a breast biopsy?

You may need a breast biopsy if:

  • You or your health care provider felt a lump in your breast
  • Your mammogram, MRI, or ultrasound tests show a lump, shadow, or other areas of concern
  • You have changes in your nipple, such as bloody discharge

If your health care provider has ordered a breast biopsy, it does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. The majority of breast lumps that are tested are benign, which means noncancerous.

What happens during a breast biopsy?

There are three main types of breast biopsy procedures:

  • Fine needle aspiration biopsy, which uses a very thin needle to remove a sample of breast cells or fluid
  • Core needle biopsy, which uses a larger needle to remove a sample
  • Surgical biopsy, which removes a sample in a minor, outpatient procedure

Fine needle aspiration and core needle biopsies usually include the following steps.

  • You will lay on your side or sit on an exam table.
  • A health care provider will clean the biopsy site and inject it with an anaesthetic, so you won’t feel any pain during the procedure.
  • Once the area is numb, the provider will insert either a fine aspiration needle or core biopsy needle into the biopsy site and remove a sample of tissue or fluid.
  • You may feel a little pressure when the sample is withdrawn.
  • Pressure will be applied to the biopsy site until the bleeding stops.
  • Your provider will apply a sterile bandage at the biopsy site.
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In a surgical biopsy, a surgeon will make a small cut in your skin to remove all or part of a breast lump. A surgical biopsy is sometimes done if the lump can’t be reached with a needle biopsy. Surgical biopsies usually include the following steps.

  • You will lie on an operating table. An IV (intravenous line) may be placed in your arm or hand.
  • You may be given medicine, called a sedative, to help you relax.
  • You will be given local or general anaesthesia, so you won’t feel pain during the procedure.
    • For local anaesthesia, a health care provider will inject the biopsy site with medicine to numb the area.
    • For general anaesthesia, a specialist called an anesthesiologist will give you medicine, so you will be unconscious during the procedure.
  • the biopsy area is numb or you are unconscious, the surgeon will make a small cut into the breast and remove part or all of a lump. Some tissue around the lump may also be removed.
  • The cut in your skin will be closed with stitches or adhesive strips.

The type of biopsy you have will depend on different factors, including the size of the lump and what the lump or area of concern looks like on a breast test.

Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?

You won’t need any special preparations if you are getting local anaesthesia (numbing of the biopsy site). If you are getting general anaesthesia, you will probably need to fast (not eat or drink) for several hours before surgery. Your surgeon will give you more specific instructions. Also, if you are getting a sedative or general anaesthesia, be sure to arrange for someone to drive you home. You may be groggy and confused after you wake up from the procedure.

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Are there any risks to the test?

You may have a little bruising or bleeding at the biopsy site. Sometimes the site gets infected. If that happens, you will be treated with antibiotics. A surgical biopsy may cause some additional pain and discomfort. Your health care provider may recommend or prescribe medicine to help you feel better.

What do the results mean?

It may take several days to a week to get your results. Typical results may show:

  • Normal. No cancer or abnormal cells were found.
  • Abnormal, but benign. These show breast changes that are not cancer. These include calcium deposits and cysts. Sometimes more testing and/or follow-up treatment may be needed.
  • Cancer cells found. Your results will include information about cancer to help you and your health care provider develop a treatment plan that best meets your needs. You will probably be referred to a provider who specializes in breast cancer treatment.

Is there anything else I need to know about a breast biopsy?

In the United States, tens of thousands of women and hundreds of men die of breast cancer every year. A breast biopsy, when appropriate, can help find breast cancer at an early stage when it’s most treatable. If breast cancer is found early, when it is confined to the breast only, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent. This means, on average, that 99 out of 100 people with breast cancer that was detected early are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed. If you have questions about breast cancer screening, such as mammograms or a breast biopsy, talk to your health care provider.

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Other names

Core needle biopsy; core biopsy, breast; fine-needle aspiration; open surgery biopsy


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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

Hinkle J, Cheever K. Brunner & Suddarth’s Handbook of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests. 2nd Ed, Kindle. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Mayo Clinic [Internet]. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

Merck Manual Consumer Version [Internet]. Kenilworth (NJ): Merck & Co., Inc.

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University of Rochester Medical Center [Internet]. Rochester (NY): University of Rochester Medical Center

UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority