Breast lump biopsy

Expert reviewer, Mr Giles Davies, Consultant Breast Surgeon
Next review due January 2022

A biopsy is one of several tests you may have to check for breast cancer if you have a breast lump. It involves taking a sample of cells or tissue from the area of your breast that needs to be checked.

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 changes 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 to be checked out. You may also be invited to go for tests at a clinic following a screening mammogram (X-ray of your breasts). You’ll usually be offered a biopsy as part of a series of tests, called a 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 very 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, using a special hollow needle. Your doctor will 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 mammography to make sure the needle reaches 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 get the sample of tissue. Again, your doctor will numb the area with local anaesthetic first, before inserting the probe through a small cut in your skin. As with a core needle biopsy, your doctor may use ultrasound or mammography to guide the probe. With this procedure, your doctor can take several samples through the same probe, without having to remove it.

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. It may be carried out with ultrasound or mammography to guide the needle.

Excision (surgical) biopsy

In some circumstances, your doctor may recommend you have a minor operation to remove the whole breast lump, which can then be sent away for examination. The operation can be done under local anaesthesia. Your doctor may suggest this if you’ve had one of the other types of biopsy but the results haven’t been very clear. If your doctor thinks this is the best option, they will discuss with you the reasons why and what this procedure involves.

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Will having a breast biopsy hurt?

You might feel some discomfort during a breast biopsy, but it shouldn’t be painful. Core needle, vacuum-assisted and excision breast biopsies are usually done under local anaesthesia. It might sting a little as the anaesthetic injection is given, but then the area of your breast will be numb while the biopsy is taken. An anaesthetic isn’t usually needed if you’re having a fine needle aspiration biopsy.

After your biopsy

You’ll usually be able to get dressed and go straight home or back to work after a core needle 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 you’re feeling well enough to travel. You might have some bruising in the area afterwards, although this will wear off after a week or two. If your breast feels sore, take over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol if you need to.

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 be given 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, such as those listed below.

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Related information

    • Assessment of breast mass. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed August 2018
    • Improving outcomes in breast cancer. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August 2002.
    • Breast disease. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online., published online April 2014
    • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2015.
    • Breast lumps and breast examination. PatientPlus., last checked 4 June 2015
    • Breast surgery. Oxford handbook of operative surgery. Oxford Medicine Online., published online May 2017
    • Image-guided vacuum-assisted excision biopsy of benign breast lesions. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), February 2006.
    • Vacuum assisted biopsy. Cancer Research UK., last reviewed 20 October 2017
    • Fine needle aspiration. Cancer Research UK., last reviewed 19 October 2017
    • Breast cancer. PatientPlus., last checked 3 July 2016
    • Needle biopsy. Cancer Research UK., last reviewed 19 October 2017
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, January 2019
    Expert reviewer, Mr Giles Davies, Consultant Breast Surgeon
    Next review due January 2022