Breast lump biopsy

Peer reviewed by Dr Lizzie Tuckey, Medical Director, Bupa UK
Next review due May 2019

It’s important to see your GP if you find a lump or other changes in your breast. If they think there’s a chance your symptoms could be breast cancer, they’ll refer you to a breast clinic to be checked out.

Image showing the structures of the breast

Triple assessment

The doctor at the breast clinic will ask about your symptoms and will examine you. They’ll probably then offer you further tests including: 

You may have one or both of these tests. Based on the results of these tests, your doctor may recommend that you have a breast biopsy. You may be able to have all your tests, including the biopsy, during a single clinic visit. This series of tests is called a triple assessment.

Having a breast biopsy

A biopsy is a sample of cells or tissue taken from the area of your breast that needs to be checked. Your doctor sends the biopsy to the laboratory for examination. It’s the only way to tell for certain whether you have breast cancer or not. There are several different ways to take a breast lump biopsy – your doctor will explain which is most suitable for you. We describe them very briefly here, but watch our videos for more details of how they are carried out.

Core needle biopsy

After numbing the area with a local anaesthetic injection, your doctor will make a tiny cut in your skin. They’ll then use a special hollow needle to take one or more cores of breast tissue from the lump. Your doctor may use ultrasound to guide the needle to exactly the right place. 

Vacuum-assisted core breast biopsy

After numbing the area with a local anaesthetic injection, your doctor will make a tiny cut in your skin. They’ll then use a thin probe attached to a gentle vacuum pump instead of a needle to get the sample of tissue. This may be a slightly larger sample than they would get with core needle biopsy. They may also be able to take several samples through the same probe, without having to remove it. Again, they may use ultrasound guidance. 

Fine needle (aspiration) biopsy

In this type of biopsy, your doctor uses a very thin needle and syringe 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. 

Excision (surgical) biopsy

In some circumstances, your doctor may recommend you have a minor operation to remove the whole breast lump. This is done under either local or general anaesthesia. If your doctor thinks this is the best option, they will discuss with you the reasons and what this procedure involves.

Will having a breast biopsy hurt?

No – it shouldn’t do. Core needle and vacuum-assisted breast biopsies are usually done under local anaesthesia. This means you’re awake, but the area of your breast is numb. It might sting a little as the anaesthetic injection is given. Excision biopsies are done with either a local or general anaesthetic. You don’t usually need any anaesthetic for a fine needle aspiration biopsy.

After your biopsy

Arrange with a friend or family member to drive you home after the procedure. After a needle biopsy you may have some bruising and discomfort. You can take over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol if you need pain relief. It’s best to avoid strenuous activity for 24 hours after your biopsy. After that, you can go back to your usual activities.

Getting your results

It may take several working days for your results to come back. When you have your biopsy, ask your doctor when you can expect your results, and how you’ll be given them.

It’s natural to be anxious while waiting for your results. You might find it help to talk to those close to you about how you’re feeling or you may prefer to talk to others who have been through a similar experience via a support group.

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Related information

    • Assessment of breast mass. BMJ Best practice., published 30 November 2015
    • Map of Medicine. Breast cancer. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2015 (Issue 5)
    • Early and locally advanced breast cancer. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)., published February 2009
    • Clinical guidelines for breast screening assessment. NHS Cancer Screening programmes., published 2010
    • Best practice diagnostic guidelines for patients presenting with breast symptoms. Cancer Reform Strategy Breast Cancer Working Group. Department of Health., published November 2010.
    • Breast cancer. Cancer Research UK., published 30 July 2014
    • Types of biopsy procedures. American Cancer Society., published 20 October 2015
    • Mammogram and other tests. Breast Cancer Care., published January 2014
    • Ultrasound-guided breast biopsy., published 11 June 2015
  • Reviewed by Natalie Heaton, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, May 2016
    Peer reviewed by Dr Lizzie Tuckey, Medical Director, Bupa UK
    Next review due May 2019

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