What is a breast biopsy?

If an abnormal area is found in the breast tissue, the doctor will need to take a sample of cells. This is called a biopsy. You can usually have it at the breast clinic on the same day as your mammogram and ultrasound.

The doctor or a specially trained nurse will give you an injection of anaesthetic to numb the area. Then they remove a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells from the lump or abnormal area. Sometimes they may take more than 1 sample from different areas in the breast or from the lymph nodes.

A doctor who specialises in studying cells looks at the sample under a microscope. They are called a pathologist. They check for cancer cells.

For a few days after the biopsy, your breast or chest area may feel sore and bruised. Taking painkillers and wearing a supportive bra may help. Any bruising will usually go away in a couple of weeks. The results are usually ready after 1 to 2 weeks.

There are different ways of taking a biopsy. Your doctor or nurse will explain the type you will have.

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Fine needle aspiration (FNA)

The doctor or a specialist nurse puts a very fine needle into the area. They then withdraw a sample of cells into a syringe. This is a quick, simple test.

Needle biopsy

This is sometimes called a core biopsy. The doctor or specialist nurse injects some local anaesthetic to numb the area. Then they use a needle to take small pieces of tissue from the lump or abnormal area. They may use an ultrasound or mammogram to help guide the needle to the right place.

You may feel a little pain or pressure for a short time during the biopsy. Usually, several cores of tissue are removed. But they are all removed through the same hole in the skin.

Stereotactic core biopsy

You may have this type of biopsy if the abnormal area can only be seen on a mammogram. It is similar to a needle biopsy. But you will be positioned in a mammogram machine that has a special device attached.

Before taking the biopsy, the doctor will inject some local anaesthetic into the area to numb it. You usually have the biopsy sitting down. But you may be asked to lie on your front. The radiographer takes an x-ray of the breast tissue from 2 different angles. This is to work out the exact position of the abnormal area. They then insert a needle into the right place to take a sample.

Vacuum-assisted biopsy VAB

This uses a vacuum-assisted method to take a slightly larger needle biopsy. A doctor or specially trained nurse gives you an injection of local anaesthetic to numb the breast or chest area. They then make a small cut in the area and put a needle through it. A mammogram or ultrasound picture helps them guide the needle to the right area. They place the needle into the area. The needle is attached to a vacuum device. The device gently sucks up the breast tissue into a small container. The doctor or nurse can take several biopsies without needing to remove the needle and put it in again.

Clip insertion

After a needle biopsy, you may have a tiny metal marker or clip placed where the biopsy was taken from. This shows up in mammograms. It marks the exact area of the biopsy if you need more breast tissue removed. If you need surgery, the surgeon will remove the marker or clip during your operation. It is very small. It will not cause you any harm or discomfort if it is not removed.

Excision biopsy

Sometimes it is not possible to remove enough tissue to make a diagnosis with a needle biopsy or a vacuum-assisted biopsy. In this case, you may need a small operation called an excision biopsy. You will be referred to a specialist breast surgeon to have this. You have it under general anaesthetic.

The surgeon makes a cut in the skin of the breast. They then take a biopsy of the breast tissue. You can usually go home on the day of your operation. But some people may need to stay in hospital overnight. Usually, you have stitches that dissolve and do not need to be removed.

Waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, your family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 0000.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Rebecca Roylance, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Professor Mike Dixon, Professor of Surgery and Consultant Breast Surgeon.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 October 2023
Next review: 01 October 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
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Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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