Breast Biopsy

Written by Brian Krans | Published on August 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Breast Biopsy?

A breast biopsy is a simple medical procedure where a sample of breast tissue is removed and sent to a laboratory for testing. According to the Mayo Clinic, a breast biopsy is the best way to evaluate if a suspicious lump or portion, of the breast is cancerous (Mayo Clinic).

Remember, breast lumps are not always cancerous. There are several conditions that can cause lumps or growths in the breast. A breast biopsy can help determine if a lump in your breast is cancerous or benign (non-cancerous).

Why a Breast Biopsy Is Performed

A breast biopsy is typically performed to investigate a lump in the breast. This is important because while a breast lump may be frightening, breast lumps are only cancerous in one out of five cases, according to the Mayo Clinic (Mayo Clinic).

Your doctor will usually order a biopsy if he or she becomes concerned following a mammogram or breast ultrasound, or if a lump was found during a physical exam.

A biopsy may also be ordered if there are changes in your nipple, including bloody discharge, crusting, dimpling skin, or scaling. These are all symptoms of a tumor in the breast.

The Risks of a Breast Biopsy

Although a breast biopsy is relatively simple and low-risk, every surgical procedure carries a risk. Some possible side effects of a breast biopsy include:

  • altered appearance of your breast, depending on the size of the tissue removed
  • bruising and swelling of the breast
  • soreness at the injection site
  • infection of the biopsy site

Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions for after-biopsy care. This will greatly reduce your chance of infection.

Complications from a biopsy are rare. The benefits of having your potentially cancerous lump inspected far outweigh any risk from the procedure.

The quicker you detect breast cancer, the faster treatment can begin, and that will greatly better your chances of survival.

How to Prepare for a Breast Biopsy

Before your breast biopsy, tell your doctor about any allergies you may have, especially any history of allergic reactions to anesthesia. Also tell your doctor about any medications you may be taking—including over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin or supplements. They may cause blood thinning.

If your doctor says you’ll be undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), inform him or her about whether you have any electronic devices implanted in your body, such as pacemaker. Also, tell your doctor if you are pregnant or concerned you may be pregnant. While the test is safe for adults, it isn’t considered safe for unborn babies.

The Mayo Clinic advises you to wear a bra to your appointment. You may be given a cold pack after the procedure to help with pain and inflammation. Your bra will help keep the cold pack in place.

How a Breast Biopsy Is Performed

Before the breast biopsy, your doctor will examine your breast. This could include a physical examination, ultrasound, mammogram, or MRI.

During one of these tests, your doctor may place a thin needle or wire into the area so the surgeon can easily find the area. You will be given local anesthesia to numb the area around the lump.

Types of Breast Biopsies

There are several ways a surgeon can take a sample of breast tissue. These include:

Fine Needle Biopsy

For this procedure, you will lie on a table while your surgeon inserts a small needle and syringe into the lump and extracts a sample. This helps determine the difference between a liquid-filled cyst and a solid mass lump.

Core Needle Biopsy

Similar to a fine needle biopsy, this procedure uses a larger needle to collect several samples, each about the size of a grain of rice.

Stereotactic Biopsy

During this procedure, you’ll lie face down on a table with hole in it. The table is electrically powered and can rise up. In this way, the surgeon can work underneath the table while your breast is firmly placed between two plates. Your surgeon will make a small incision and remove samples with a needle or a vacuum-powered probe.

MRI-Guided Core Needle Biopsy

During this test, you lie face down on a table with your breast lying in a depression on the table. An MRI machine will provide images that guide the surgeon to the lump. A small incision is made and a sample is taken with a core needle.

Surgical Biopsy

This procedure involves the surgical removal of a breast mass. Afterward, the sample is sent to the hospital laboratory, which will examine the edges to ensure the entire cancerous lump was removed. A metal marker may be left in your breast to monitor the area in the future.

After a Breast Biopsy

After the procedure, you will be able to go home. The samples will be sent to a laboratory. It will usually take usually just a few days for them to be properly analyzed.

You will need to care for the biopsy site by keeping it clean and changing bandages. Your doctor will instruct you how to properly care for your wound.

If you develop a fever of over 100°F or experience redness, warmth, or discharge from the site, you should contact your doctor. These are all signs of infection.

Results of a Breast Biopsy

Your test results can come back as benign (non-cancerous), pre-cancerous, or cancerous.

If the sample is cancerous, the biopsy results will also reveal the type of cancer. Types of breast cancer that can be detected include:

  • ductal carcinoma: cancer of the breast ducts
  • inflammatory breast cancer: a rare form that makes the skin of the breast appear infected
  • lobular carcinoma: cancer of the lobules, or the glands that produce milk
  • Paget’s disease: a rare cancer that affects the nipples

Your doctor will use the type of cancer and other information from the biopsy to help plan your treatment. This may include lumpectomy (the surgical removal of the tumor), radiation, chemotherapy, and/or hormone therapy.

However, several non-cancerous conditions can also cause lumps in the breast. They include:

  • adenofibroma: a benign tumor of the breast tissue
  • fibrocystic breast disease: painful, lumpy breasts caused by hormone changes
  • intraductal papilloma: small, benign tumors of the milk ducts
  • mammary fat necrosis: lumps formed by bruised, dead, or injured fat tissue
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