What is a breast biopsy?
A breast biopsy is a simple medical procedure in which a sample of breast tissue is removed and sent to a laboratory for testing. A breast biopsy is the best way to evaluate if a suspicious lump or portion of your breast is cancerous.
It’s important to remember that breast lumps aren’t 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, which means noncancerous.
Why a breast biopsy is performed
A breast biopsy is typically performed to investigate a lump in the breast. Most breast lumps are noncancerous.
Your doctor will usually order a biopsy if they become concerned about the results of 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
- dimpling skin
These are all symptoms of a tumor in the breast.
What the risks of a breast biopsy are
Although a breast biopsy is relatively simple and its risks are low, every surgical procedure carries a risk. Some possible side effects of a breast biopsy include:
- an altered appearance of your breast, depending on the size of the tissue removed
- bruising of the breast
- swelling of the breast
- soreness at the injection site
- an infection of the biopsy site
Most of these possible side effects are temporary. If they persist, they can be treatable. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions for care after the biopsy. 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 the risks from the procedure.
The quicker breast cancer is detected, the faster treatment can begin. This will greatly improve your overall outlook and 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 (which may cause your blood to thin) or supplements.
If your doctor recommends an MRI scan, tell them about any electronic devices implanted in your body, such as a pacemaker. Also, tell your doctor if you’re pregnant or concerned you may be pregnant. While the test is safe for adults, it isn’t considered safe for unborn babies.
Consider wearing 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
- an ultrasound
- a mammogram
- an MRI scan
During one of these tests, your doctor may place a thin needle or wire into the area of the lump so the surgeon can easily find it. You’ll 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
During a fine needle biopsy, you’ll 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
A core needle biopsy is similar to a fine needle biopsy. During this procedure, your doctor uses a larger needle to collect several samples, each about the size of a grain of rice.
During a stereotactic biopsy, you’ll lie face down on a table with a hole in it. The table is electrically powered, and it can be raised. In this way, your 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 an MRI-guided core needle biopsy, you’ll lie face down on a table with your breast 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.
A surgical biopsy involves the surgical removal of a breast mass. Afterward, the sample is sent to the hospital laboratory. At the laboratory, they’ll examine the edges to ensure the entire lump was removed if it’s cancerous. A metal marker may be left in your breast to monitor the area in the future.
After a breast biopsy
You’ll likely be able to go home following the procedure. The samples from your biopsy will be sent to a laboratory. It will usually take just a few days for them to be properly analyzed.
You’ll need to care for the biopsy site by keeping it clean and changing bandages. Your doctor will instruct you about how to care for your wound properly.
If any of the following occur, you should contact your doctor:
- a fever of over 100°F (38°C)
- redness at the biopsy site
- warmth at the biopsy site
- discharge from the site
These may be signs of infection.
Results of a breast biopsy
Your test results can come back as benign, precancerous, or cancerous.
If the sample is cancerous, the biopsy results will also be able to reveal the type of cancer. Types of breast cancer that can be detected include:
- ductal carcinoma, which is cancer of the breast ducts
- inflammatory breast cancer, which is a rare form that makes the skin of the breast appear infected
- lobular carcinoma, which is a cancer of the lobules, or the glands that produce milk
- Paget’s disease, which is 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 one or more of the following:
- a lumpectomy, which is the surgical removal of the tumor
- a mastectomy, which is the surgical removal of the breast
- radiation therapy
- hormone therapy
However, several noncancerous conditions can also cause lumps in the breast. They include:
- adenofibroma, which is a benign tumor of the breast tissue
- fibrocystic breast disease, which involves painful lumps in the breasts caused by hormone changes
- intraductal papilloma, which is a small, benign tumor of the milk ducts
- mammary fat necrosis, which is a lump formed by bruised, dead, or injured fat tissue