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Breast Biopsy

Definition, Purpose, Precautions, Description, Preparation, Aftercare, Risks, Normal results, Abnormal results

A breast biopsy is removal of breast tissue for examination by a pathologist. This can be accomplished surgically, or by withdrawing tissue through a needle.


A biopsy is recommended when a significant abnormality is found, either on physical examination and/or by an imaging test. Examples of abnormality can include a breast lump felt during physical self examination or tissue changes noticed from a mammogram test. Before a biopsy is performed, it is important to make sure that the threat of cancer cannot be disproved or ruled out by a simpler, less invasive examination. A lump may be obviously harmless when examined by ultrasound. If this is not decisive, the presence of cancer or a variety of benign breast conditions can be determined using a biopsy.


The type of biopsy recommended should be considered. This will depend on whether the area can be felt, how well it can be seen on mammogram or ultrasound, and how suspicious it feels or appears. Specialized equipment is needed for different types of biopsy and availability may vary. Generally, needle biopsy is less invasive than surgical biopsy. It is appropriate for most, but not all situations. However, some surgeons feel it is far less accurate.


Surgical biopsy

If an abnormality is not felt during a self examination, there are signs that indicate the need for medical attention. These include:

  • severe breast pain
  • changes in the size of a breast or the nipple
  • changes in the shape of both breast or nipple
  • pitting, dumpling or redness of the breast skin
  • nipple redness, irritation, or inversion
  • changes in the pattern of veins visible on the surface of the breast
  • some types of nipple discharge

If the abnormality is not felt, a needle localization must be done before the actual surgery. After local anesthetic is administered, a fine wire is placed in the area of concern. Either x ray or ultrasound guidance is used. The patient is awake and usually sitting up.

There are two types of breast biopsy considered here, excisional and incisional. An excisional biopsy is a surgical procedure, where the entire area of concern and some surrounding tissue is removed. It is usually done as an outpatient procedure, in a hospital or free standing surgery center. The patient may be awake, and is sometimes given medication to make her drowsy. The area to be operated on is numbed with local anesthetic. Infrequently, general anesthesia is used.

An excisional biopsy itself usually takes under one hour. The total amount of time spent at the facility depends on the type of anesthesia used, whether a needle localization was done, and the extent of the surgery.

If a mass is very large, an incisional biopsy may be performed. In this case only a portion of the area is removed and sent for analysis. The procedure is the same as an excisional biopsy in other respects.

Needle biopsy

A needle biopsy removes part of the suspicious area for examination. There are two types, aspiration biopsy (using a fine needle), and large core needle biopsy. Either of these may be called a percutaneous needle biopsy. Per-cutaneous refers to a procedure done through the skin.

A fine needle aspiration biopsy uses a very thin needle to withdraw fluid and cells that can be studied. It can be done in a doctor's office, clinic, or hospital. Local anesthetic may be used, but is sometimes withheld, as it may be more painful than the biopsy needle. The area to place the needle may be located by touch. No specialized equipment is needed. However, using ultrasound guidance enables the physician to feel and see the lesion at the same time. The actual withdrawing of fluid and cells can be visualized as it occurs. This helps ensure that the specimen is taken from the right place.

A large core needle biopsy uses a larger diameter needle to remove small pieces of tissue, about the size of a grain of rice. It can be done in a clinic or hospital that has the appropriate facilities. Local anesthetic is routinely

A fine needle aspiration biopsy uses a very thin needle to withdraw fluid and cells from the breast to be examined. An excisional biopsy is a surgical procedure in which the entire area of concern and some surrounding tissue is removed for analysis. (Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group.) A fine needle aspiration biopsy uses a very thin needle to withdraw fluid and cells from the breast to be examined. An excisional biopsy is a surgical procedure in which the entire area of concern and some surrounding tissue is removed for analysis. (Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group.)

used. Ultrasound or x ray is used for guidance of a large core needle biopsy.

If the suspicious area is seen best with x ray, a stereo-tactic device is used. This means that x rays are taken from several angles. This information is fed into a computer, which analyzes the data and guides the needle to the correct place. The patient may be sitting up, or she may be lying on her stomach, with her breast positioned through an opening in the table. The breast is held firmly, but comfortably between a plastic paddle and a metal plate, similar to those used for mammograms (a set of x rays taken of the front and side of the breast). X rays may be taken before, during, and after the tissue is drawn into the needle, to confirm that the correct spot is biopsied. This procedure may also be referred to as a stereotactic core biopsy, or a mammotomy.

Ultrasound is used to guide needle placement for some lesions. The patient lies on her back or side. After the area is numbed, sterile gel is applied. The physician places a transducer, an instrument about the size of an electric shaver, over the skin. This produces an image from the reflection of sound waves. A special needle, usually in a spring loaded device, is used to obtain the tissue. The procedure is observed on a monitor as it is happening.


A surgical breast biopsy may require the patient to have nothing to eat or drink for a period of time before the operation. This will typically be from midnight the night before, if general anesthesia is planned. No food restrictions are necessary for needle biopsy. It is advisable to eat lightly before the procedure. This is especially important if the patient will be lying on her stomach for a stereotactic biopsy.


After a surgical biopsy, the incision will be closed with stitches, and covered with a bandage. The bandage can usually be removed in one or two days. Stitches are taken out approximately one week afterward. Depending on the extent of the operation, normal activities can be resumed in approximately one to three days. Vigorous exercise may be limited for one to three weeks.

The skin opening for a needle biopsy is minimal. It may be closed with thin, clear tape, called a steri strip, or covered with a bandaid and a small gauze bandage. The patient can return to her usual routine immediately after the biopsy. Strenuous activity or heavy lifting is not recommended for 24 hours. Any bandages can be removed one or two days after the biopsy.


Infection is always a possibility when the skin is broken, although this rarely occurs. Redness, swelling, or severe pain at the biopsy site would indicate a possible infection. Another possible consequence of a breast biopsy is a hematoma. This is a collection of blood at the biopsy site. It is usually absorbed naturally by the body. If it is very large and uncomfortable, it may need to be drained. A surgical breast biopsy may produce a visible scar on the breast. Sometimes this may make future mammograms harder to interpret accurately.

A false negative pathology report is another risk. This means that no cancer was found when a cancer was present. The incidence of this varies with the biopsy technique. In general, fine needle aspiration biopsies have the highest rate of false negative results, but there may be variation in results between facilities.

Normal results

A normal pathology report indicates no malignancy is present. The tissue sample may be further classified as a benign breast condition, such as tumor of the breast (fibroadenoma) or connective tissue that resembles fiber (fibrosis). Studies have demonstrated that approximately 80% of all breast biopsies result in a benign pathology report.

Abnormal results

An abnormal pathology report indicates a cancer is present. If a fine needle aspiration biopsy was performed, the pathologist has viewed individual cells under a microscope to see if they appear cancerous. Large core needle biopsy and surgical biopsy will be able to give more information. This includes the type of cancer, whether it has invaded surrounding tissue, and how likely it is to spread quickly. There are some conditions which are not malignant but indicate high risk for future development of breast cancer. If these are identified, more frequent monitoring of the area may be recommended.



Baron-Faust, Rita. Breast Cancer: What Every Woman Should Know. New York: Hearst Books, 1995.

Love, Susan and Karen Lindsey. Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995.


Bassett, Lawrence, et al. "Stereotactic Core-Needle Biopsy of the Breast." CA: A Journal for Clinicians 47 (May/June 1997): 171-190.

Cady, Blake, et al. "Evaluation of Common Breast Problems: Guidance for Primary Care Providers." CA:A Journal for Clinicians 48 (Jan./Feb. 1998): 49-63.

Castleman, Michael. "News About Breast Cancer That Could Save Your Life." Family Circle, 11 (13 May 1997): 60-65.

Weber, Ellen. "Questions and Answers About Breast Cancer Diagnosis." American Journal of Nursing 97 (Oct. 1997): 34-38.


American Cancer Society. 1599 Clifton Rd., NE, Atlanta, GA 30329-4251. (800) 227-2345. <http://www.cancer.org>.

National Cancer Institute. Building 31, Room 10A31, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2580, Bethesda, MD 20892-2580. (800) 422-6237. <http://www.nci.nih.gov>.

Ellen S. Weber, MSN


Fine needle aspiration biopsy—A procedure using a thin needle to remove fluid and cells from a lump in the breast.

Large core needle biopsy—A procedure using a thicker needle to remove a core of tissue, about the size of a grain of rice, from the breast.

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