You were doing a routine breast self-exam and you found something that seemed…off.
You went to the doctor and they checked it out, agreeing that this may not be a normal change in breast tissue. To rule out anything serious, they recommended that you get a biopsy.
A breast biopsy may seem like a frightening procedure, but it’s vital to early cancer detection and is nothing to be afraid of. If you’re wondering what to expect, read on for our guide to everything you need to know.
What Is a Breast Biopsy?
A breast biopsy procedure is used to identify whether an abnormal area of breast tissue is cancerous. A physician may order one if they detect anything wrong during an exam or through imaging like an MRI or ultrasound. During the procedure, they will take a sample of the abnormal tissue and then send it off for evaluation.
There are two main types of breast biopsies, though the specifics will depend on your specific circumstances.
The simplest and least invasive type of biopsy uses what’s called fine-needle aspiration.
If your doctor can feel the lump from the surface, they’ll insert a tiny needle attached to a syringe into it. They’ll then use the syringe to draw out (aspirate) any liquid or cells that they can. This is an easy way to determine whether the lump is solid or merely a fluid-filled breast cyst.
If you already know the mass is solid, your doctor may use a core needle to take a few small rice-sized samples. Ultrasound, MRI, or mammogram imaging can help them find the right location if it’s deep beneath the surface.
A surgical breast biopsy (also sometimes called a lumpectomy) involves removing all or a large portion of the mass at once. Depending on the scope of the procedure, you might either be sedated with a local anesthetic or put under general anesthesia. The surgeon might insert a thin wire to map out the margins of the mass if it isn’t visible with radiographic imaging.
The whole lump is then sent off to the pathology lab for testing. If it’s determined to be cancerous, you might need a second procedure to remove any remaining abnormal cells from the area.
Preparing for Your Biopsy
There isn’t much you need to do to prepare for your biopsy procedure.
If you can, we recommend wearing a comfortable bra for the appointment. You might get a cold pack to hold on the procedure site after you’re released, and the bra gives you a convenient hands-free way to hold it in place.
Having a surgical biopsy might mean that you need to avoid eating or drinking for 12 hours before your appointment. Your doctor will tell you if this is the case.
Make sure to inform your medical team of any allergies you have to medications or medical materials well in advance. It’s also important to tell them if you have any metal or electronic implants (like a pacemaker), as they may have to avoid using an MRI machine for imaging.
You should be able to go home the same day as your procedure, and you’ll be able to go back to normal activity within a day or two. If you had a surgical biopsy, your doctor will leave you with instructions on how to care for the stitches and incision site.
Breast biopsies are considered a low-risk procedure, especially when done with a needle and local anesthetic. Some post-procedure bruising and swelling are common, as is some soreness at the site.
If you are put under general anesthesia for a surgical breast biopsy, there’s always the rare chance that something might go wrong while you’re under, but this is rare. Let your doctor know ahead of time if you’ve been taking anticoagulants, aspirin, or using cannabis, as these can cause bleeding or interfere with the anesthesia.
As with any surgical procedure, there’s some chance of bleeding, infection, and scarring. But all in all, the risks are well worth the chance that you could catch a tumor before it spreads.
Getting the Results
After the biopsy is done, your doctor will take the tissue sample and send it off to a lab for examination. A pathologist will look at the sample under a microscope and identify any abnormalities. They’ll then write up a report and send it to your doctor, who will share the results with you.
This whole process can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. Your doctor will compare the pathologist’s findings with those from your radiology exam to determine whether the cells are cancerous.
If the results are inconclusive, you may need a second biopsy to get a larger tissue sample. If the cells are cancerous, your doctor will work with you to develop a plan for treatment. The sooner you identify cancerous cells, the better your chances for successful treatment.
When Should You Ask Your Doctor About a Breast Biopsy?
If you get regular mammograms (every 1-2 years after age 40), your doctor might advise you to get a biopsy without you having to ask. But our cells don’t always wait for the opportune time to start going rogue.
We recommend asking your doctor about an exam and/or biopsy whenever you find something that seems abnormal. This could be a lump, but it could also be redness, swelling, discoloration, or skin changes. Not all pains or changes in breast appearance are indicative of cancer, but it’s better to be safe and get them checked out.
Identify Breast Cancer Early with a Biopsy
Because early detection is so important for good outcomes, it’s important to let your doctor know as soon as you notice potential breast cancer symptoms. Don’t put off having a breast biopsy done—it’s a simple procedure that could end up saving your life.
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