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Breast cancer: Breast biopsy

A biopsy may be recommended to help diagnose breast cancer. Tissue and cells from a suspected tumour will be collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis.

A biopsy is the only way to determine if a tumour is cancerous or benign.

What are the types of biopsies?

The types of biopsies include:

  • Needle aspiration. A non-surgical form of breast biopsy in which a small needle is used to withdraw a sample of cells from the breast lump. If the lump is a cyst (fluid-filled sac), removal of the fluid will cause the cyst to collapse. If the lump is solid, cells can be smeared on to slides for examination.
  • Needle biopsy. Similar to needle aspiration, but a larger needle is used because actual breast tissue is removed rather than a tiny sampling of cells. A sample of the lump is removed, but not the entire lump. An ultrasound scan or a series of X-rays may be used by the doctor to guide the needle to the exact location.
  • Surgical or excision biopsy. Surgical removal of the entire lump. The tissue is then studied under a microscope. If a rim of normal breast tissue is taken all the way around a lump (called a lumpectomy), then the biopsy can also serve as part of breast cancer treatment (removal of the cancerous tumour). This is sometimes done with wire localisation. In this technique a wire is inserted through a needle into the area to be biopsied. An X-ray is taken to make sure it is in the right place. A small hook at the end of the wire keeps it in position. The surgeon uses this wire as a guide to locate the abnormal tissue to be removed.
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy. A newer biopsy method can be used to pinpoint the first lymph node into which a tumour drains (called the sentinel node) and remove only the nodes most likely to contain cancer cells. To locate the sentinel node a radioactive tracer, a blue dye, or both are injected into the area around the tumour before a mastectomy is performed. The tracer travels the same path to the lymph nodes that the cancer cells would take, making it possible for the surgeon to determine the one or two nodes most likely to test positive for cancer.

Cells or tissues that are removed using any of the methods described above are given to a pathologist, a doctor who specialises in diagnosing abnormal tissue changes.

How do I take care of myself after a surgical biopsy?

You may be wearing a special bra and dressings over the biopsy site after the procedure. You will be able to remove these two days after the biopsy. Small tapes or possibly stitches will remain over the incision site; do not remove these yourself. They will be removed at your follow-up appointment.

You may be asked to apply medicines or ice to the biopsy area or to change the bandages at home. Your doctor will advise you about showering, bathing and wound care.

You will be given a prescription for pain relief after the procedure. However, you may take an over-the counter pain reliever if that provides sufficient relief. Do not take aspirin or products containing aspirin for the first three days after the procedure.

The area of the biopsy may be black and blue right after the procedure. This will go away after a few days.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on May 06, 2016

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