Breast biopsy for women

If an abnormal area is found in the breast tissue, the doctor will need to take a sample of tissue or cells (biopsy).

What is a breast biopsy?

If an abnormal area is found in the breast, the doctor will need to take a sample of cells (biopsy). Most biopsies are done at the breast clinic on the same day you have your mammogram and ultrasound.

The doctor removes a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells from the lump or abnormal area. A doctor who specialises in studying cells (pathologist) looks at the sample under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

For a few days after the biopsy, your breast may feel sore and bruised. Taking painkillers and wearing a supportive bra will help with this. Any bruising will go away in a couple of weeks.

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

Fine needle aspiration (FNA)

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

Needle (core) biopsy

The doctor or a specialist nurse will do this test. They use a needle to take small pieces of tissue from the lump or abnormal area. Before taking the biopsy, they inject some local anaesthetic into the area to numb it. They may use an ultrasound or mammogram to help guide the needle to the right place.

You may feel a little pain or a sensation of pressure for a short time during the biopsy. They can take several samples at the same time.

Vacuum-assisted biopsy (VAB)

This is a way of taking needle biopsies using a vacuum-assisted method. The doctor gives you an injection of local anaesthetic into the skin to numb the area. They then make a small cut and put a needle through it into the breast. A mammogram or ultrasound picture helps them guide the needle to the right area. The doctor places the needle, which is attached to a suction device, into the area. Using gentle suction, they remove the breast tissue into a small container. They can take several biopsies without needing to remove the needle and put it in again.

Excision biopsy

Occasionally, the doctor makes a cut in the skin and removes the lump or abnormal area. They usually do this under a general anaesthetic, but they can sometimes do it using local anaesthetic.

Usually, you have stitches that dissolve and do not need to be removed.

Wire localisation

Sometimes, an x-ray or ultrasound is used to guide a fine wire into the breast. The wire marks exactly where the surgeon should take the biopsy. This is usually done when a mammogram or ultrasound shows an abnormal area that is too small for the doctor to feel. The surgeon removes the wire when the excision biopsy is done.

Clip insertion

When a needle biopsy is done, sometimes a tiny metal marker or clip is placed where the biopsy was taken. The clip shows up in mammograms and marks the area where the biopsy was taken. This helps the surgeon find the exact area again if you need to have more breast tissue removed later on.

The clip is very small and will not cause you any harm or discomfort, even if it is not removed. If a breast cancer is diagnosed, the clip is usually removed during surgery.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our breast cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    European Society for Medical Oncology. Primary breast cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of oncology 26 (supplement 5): v8–v30. 2015.

    Morrow M, et al. Chapter 79: malignant tumors of the breast. DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg’s cancer: principals and practice of oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2014.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and management. July 2018.

    Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network. SIGN 134. Treatment of primary breast cancer: a national clinical guideline. September 2013.

  • 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 Senior Medical Editor, Dr Rebecca Roylance, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    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.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 31 October 2018
Next review: 30 April 2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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