Breast lump biopsy

Your health expert: Mr Giles Davies, Consultant Breast Surgeon
Content editor review by Liz Woolf, September 2023
Next review due September 2026

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

Try not to worry too much if you are called back after screening. Only four in every 100 women who have a breast screening mammogram are called back. But after more tests, three out of four of these women will not have cancer.

Being asked to have a biopsy doesn’t mean you definitely have cancer either. Only one woman in five who has a breast biopsy will turn out to have breast cancer. If you do have a breast lump found, or a call-back after screening, it’s very important to have more tests. If you have breast cancer, the earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.

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. The doctor takes a cylinder-shaped sample of tissue (a core) from your breast lump with a special hollow needle. They numb the area first using a local anaesthetic, which can sting a little. Then they make a tiny cut in your skin to insert the needle. They may use ultrasound or X-ray to guide the needle to exactly the right place. The doctor may take several samples from the same area. Your nurse will put a small dressing over the area afterwards.

Vacuum-assisted core breast biopsy

With this type of biopsy, your doctor uses a thin probe attached to a suction device to take the sample of tissue. They’ll numb the area with local anaesthetic first, which may sting. 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. You will have a small dressing over the area afterwards.

Your doctor may put a tiny metal clip into the area they took the biopsy from. This clip stays there to mark the site in any future mammograms you have. It helps your doctor to find the area again if they need to. Having the clip inside your breast is harmless and won’t cause you any problems.

Fine needle (aspiration) biopsy

You may see this written as FNA or FNAC (fine needle aspiration cytology). 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. Your doctor may use ultrasound or X-rays to guide the needle to the right place.

You don’t usually need an anaesthetic for a fine needle aspiration biopsy. It shouldn’t be painful, but you may feel some pressure. Let your doctor know if it’s too sore.

Punch biopsy

You may have a punch biopsy if there are changes to your nipple or the skin of the breast. The doctor takes a small cylinder of tissue using a special cutting tool. You have an injection of local anaesthetic beforehand, which may sting a little. Your nurse will put a small dressing over the area before you go home.

Wire-guided excision biopsy

This is a small operation, usually done under general anaesthetic. It’s rarely done these days. Your doctor may suggest this if there is a suspicious area on a scan, but there is no lump to feel. The wire helps the doctor to locate the area they need to sample.

You have the wire put in first. This is done in the X-ray department, so that your doctor can see exactly where to put the wire. You will have an injection of local anaesthetic first, which may sting. The doctor will place the wire so that the tip is in the area they need to sample and tape the end of it to your chest so it can’t move. Then, either the same day or the next day, you have the surgery to remove the area around the wire.

Worried about breast health?

Book a breast check, which includes a mammogram† and get a picture of your current health with our breast health check.

To book or to make an enquiry, call us on 0370 218 8122

However, if you are concerned that you may have a lump, please book an urgent GP appointment for assessment, it may be more appropriate to refer you to a specialist.

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. Your doctor may advise you not to do any heavy lifting for two days after a vacuum-assisted biopsy.

If you’ve had a wire-guided biopsy, you’ll need time for the anaesthetic to wear off. You can go home the same day, but will need someone to collect you as you shouldn’t drive.

Your nurse will tell you how to look after the area where you had the biopsy. You might have some bruising in the area afterwards – this will get better over the next week or so. 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. After a breast lump biopsy, you may have:

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


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 collection of blood under the skin (a haematoma)
  • infection of the biopsy site

Contact your doctor if the area where you had the biopsy becomes red, hot, swollen or increasingly painful.

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 feel anxious while waiting for test 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.

You might feel discomfort during a breast biopsy but it shouldn’t be painful. You have some types of biopsies with a local anaesthetic. The anaesthetic injection might sting a little but it will numb the area of your breast where the biopsy is taken. There is more information in our section on having a breast biopsy.

Most breast biopsies turn out not to be cancer. About one in five women who have a breast biopsy will have cancer. So try not to worry too much if your doctor suggests you need one. There is more information in our section on breast cancer tests.

You’ll usually be able to go home or back to work on the day of your biopsy. The only exception is if you’ve had an excision biopsy, which needs a general anaesthetic. There is more information in our section on after your biopsy.

If you find a lump or any change in your breast, it’s important to see your GP. They will examine you and refer you to a breast clinic if they think there is any chance that the lump could be cancer. The clinic will carry out some tests, usually including a biopsy. There is information about different types of biopsy in our section on having a biopsy.

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