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Breast lump biopsy

Expert reviewer, Mr Giles Davies, Consultant Breast Surgeon
Next review due April 2024

A breast lump biopsy is where your doctor takes a sample of cells or tissue from your breast to check for cancer. It’s one of several tests you may have to check for breast cancer if you have a breast lump.

Image showing the structures of the breast

Tests for breast cancer

It’s important to see your GP if you find a lump or other change in your breast. If they think there’s a chance your symptoms could be due to breast cancer, they’ll refer you to a breast clinic. You may also be invited to go for tests at a clinic following a screening mammogram (X-ray of your breasts). You may be offered a biopsy as part of a series of tests called triple assessment. This includes:

  • an examination of your breasts by the doctor
  • a scan – this may be a mammogram (X-ray of your breasts) or an ultrasound or both
  • a biopsy

You should be able to have all these tests, including the biopsy, during a single clinic visit.

Having a breast biopsy

There are several different ways to take a breast lump biopsy. Your doctor will explain which is most suitable for you. We describe them briefly here and you can watch our videos for more details of how they’re carried out.

Core needle biopsy

This is often the first choice of biopsy in many clinics. It involves taking a cylinder-shaped sample of tissue (a core) from your breast lump. Your doctor uses a special hollow needle to do this. They’ll numb the area first using a local anaesthetic, before making a tiny cut in your skin to insert the needle. They may use ultrasound or X-rays to guide the needle to exactly the right place.



Vacuum-assisted core breast biopsy

With this type of biopsy, your doctor will use a thin probe attached to a suction device to take the sample of tissue. They’ll numb the area with local anaesthetic first. Then they’ll insert the probe through a small cut in your skin. As with a core needle biopsy, your doctor may use ultrasound or X-rays to guide the probe to the right place. They can take several samples through the same probe without having to remove it.

Your doctor may put a tiny metal clip into the area where the biopsy was taken. This clip stays there to mark the site in any future mammograms you have. It will help your doctor find the area again if needed. Having the clip inside your breast is harmless and won’t cause you any problems.



Fine needle (aspiration) biopsy

In this type of biopsy, your doctor uses a very thin needle to suck out a sample of cells from the lump in your breast. You don’t usually need an anaesthetic for a fine needle aspiration biopsy. Your doctor may use ultrasound or X-rays to guide the needle to the right place.

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After your biopsy

You’ll usually be able to get dressed and go straight home or back to work after a core needle biopsy or fine needle biopsy. But try to take it easy for the rest of the day and don’t do too much. You may need to stay at the clinic a little longer after a vacuum-assisted biopsy to check that you’re feeling well enough to travel.

Your nurse will give you information about how to look after the area where the biopsy was taken. You might have some bruising in the area afterwards, although this will wear off after a week or two. If your breast feels sore, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol.

Side-effects and complications

Breast lump biopsy is a very safe procedure, but all medical procedures carry some risks.

Side effects

Side-effects are the temporary effects of having a procedure. For breast lump biopsy, side-effects may include:

  • soreness and tenderness in your breast for a few days
  • swelling of your breast
  • bruising around the area of the biopsy which will gradually fade

Complications

Complications are problems that happen during or after a procedure. Very few women have problems from a breast lump biopsy. Possible complications include:

  • bleeding, which may lead to a haematoma (a collection of blood under the skin)
  • infection of the biopsy site

Contact your doctor if your breast becomes hot or swollen or you have pain which increases.

Getting your results

Your doctor will send your biopsy to the laboratory for examination. It may take up to a week or two for your results to come back. When you have your biopsy, ask your doctor when you can expect your results and how you’ll get them.

It’s natural to be anxious while waiting for your results. You might find it helpful to talk to a close friend or relative about how you’re feeling. Or you may prefer to talk to others who have been through a similar experience via a support group. Your doctor or nurse may know of such a group. You could also find one through some of the organisations listed in our section on other helpful websites.

Frequently asked questions



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Related information


  • Discover other helpful health information websites.
    • Assessment of breast mass. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed March 2021
    • Breast cancer. Patient. patient.info, last edited July 2016
    • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2015, updated January 2021. nice.org.uk
    • Breast surgery. Oxford Handbook of Operative Surgery, 3rd ed. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online May 2017
    • Improving outcomes in breast cancer. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August 2002. nice.org.uk
    • Needle biopsy. Cancer Research UK. cancerresearchuk.org, last reviewed September 2020
    • Vacuum assisted biopsy. Cancer Research UK. cancerresearchuk.org, last reviewed September 2020
    • Fine needle aspiration. Cancer Research UK. cancerresearchuk.org, last reviewed February 2020
    • Image-guided vacuum-assisted excision biopsy of benign breast lesions. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), February 2006. nice.org.uk
    • Breast biopsy for women. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, reviewed October 2018
    • NHS breast screening: helping you decide. Public Health England. gov.uk, accessed April 2021
  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, April 2021
    Expert reviewer, Mr Giles Davies, Consultant Breast Surgeon
    Next review due April 2024

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