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Breast Biopsy

A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissue from a mass. The tissue or cells are then examined under a microscope to check for irregular cells. A biopsy may be performed when an abnormal breast change is found during a mammogram, ultrasound or physical examination. A biopsy is the only way to determine if a potential trouble spot is benign or malignant.

There are many types of biopsy procedures. The method recommended by your Surgeon will depend on how large the lump is and where it is located in the breast and what your personal preferences are.

The types of biopsies include:
  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA): A non-surgical form of breast biopsy in which a thin needle is used to withdraw a sample of cells from the breast lump. If the lump is a cyst (fluid-filled sac), removal of the fluid will cause the cyst to drain. If the lump is solid, cells can be smeared onto slides for examination.
  • Core biopsy: A larger needle is used to make a small skin incision as actual breast tissue is removed, rather than a tiny sampling of cells. A sample of the lump is removed, but not the entire lump. The types of core biopsies include ultrasound-guided core biopsy and stereotactic biopsy, also known as minimally invasive breast biopsies.
    • Ultrasound-guided core biopsy: An ultrasound helps confirm correct needle placement using high frequency sound waves to create breast tissue images, so the exact location of the abnormality is biopsied. Ultrasound can distinguish many benign lesions, such as fluid-filled cysts, from solid lesions. Tissue samples are then taken through the needle.
    • Stereotactic biopsy: This involves centering the area to be tested in the window of a specially designed instrument. Mammogram films are taken so the radiologist can examine the breast tissue. Using a local anesthetic, the radiologist makes a small opening in the skin. A sterile biopsy needle is placed into the breast tissue area to be biopsied. Computerised pictures help confirm the exact needle placement. Tissue samples are taken through the needle. It is common to take multiple tissue specimens (about three to five).
  • Open excisional biopsy: Surgical removal of the entire lump. The tissue is then studied under a microscope. If a rim of normal breast tissue is taken all the way around a lump (called a lumpectomy), then the biopsy can also serve as part of breast cancer treatment if applicable. This is sometimes done with wire localisation. In this technique, a wire is inserted through a needle into the area to be biopsied. An X-ray is taken to make sure it is in the right place. A small hook at the end of the wire keeps it in position. The surgeon uses this wire as a guide to locate the abnormal tissue to be removed.
  • Sentinel node biopsy: A method can be used to pinpoint the first lymph node into which a tumor drains (called the sentinel node) and remove only the nodes most likely to contain cancer cells. To locate the sentinel node, a radioactive tracer, a blue dye or both are injected into the area around the tumour. The tracer travels the same path to the lymph nodes that the cancer cells would take, making it possible for the surgeon to determine the one or two nodes most likely to test positive for cancer.