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Needle biopsy

A needle biopsy of the breast is a way of taking a sample of breast tissue to look at under the microscope. This test is also called a core needle biopsy.

Your doctor uses a hollow needle to take a few samples. The needle has a special cutting tool attached to a handle.

The samples are taken from an area of the breast that may look abnormal on a breast ultrasound or an x-ray of the breast (mammogram).  

The samples are examined under a microscope. This can show whether there is a cancer or another type of breast condition such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

Preparing for your test

You can eat and drink normally before your biopsy. Take your medicines as normal. But if you are taking any blood thinning medicines you might need to stop them before the test. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when to stop.

Where you have this

You might have this test in the outpatient department of the hospital. Or you might have it in a one stop breast clinic after other tests, such as a mammogram or breast ultrasound.

What happens

Your doctor or nurse will give you information about the procedure and may ask you to sign a consent form. This is a good time to ask any questions that you have. 

The test takes a few minutes, but you will be with the doctor for about 20 minutes. Part of this time is making sure you understand the procedure and you are comfortable.  

A staff member will ask you to take off your upper clothing, including your bra. You might put on a hospital gown.

You lie on a couch and the doctor usually does an ultrasound scan of your breast. This finds the right place to take the sample.

The doctor cleans the breast area. They use a local anesthetic injection to numb the area, which might sting a little.

Then they make a very small cut in the skin. They gently put a hollow needle through the cut into your breast and take a sample of breast tissue. You usually have more than one sample taken. You might hear the needle click as each sample is taken.

Diagram of a core biopsy of the breast

You will feel some pressure on the breast and it can sometimes feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t be painful. Do let the doctor know if it is painful, you may need a little more local anaesthetic.

When they have the sample they remove the needle. The doctor puts the samples of tissue into a small pot. They send them to the laboratory so that they can be examined under the microscope.

The doctor or a nurse puts pressure on your breast for a few minutes after the test. This is to try to prevent bleeding or bruising.

You will have a dressing put over the site, this is usually a paper stitch with waterproof dressing over the top.

After your needle biopsy

You can get dressed and go home or back to work straight afterwards if you like. But try not to do too much for the rest of the day.

You can take paracetamol if your breast is sore or tender. Your doctor or nurse will let you know how to look after the biopsy area and your dressing. You can have a shower or bath as normal if you have a waterproof dressing.

You might see some bruising in the area and this is normal. It will go after a week or two.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. 

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 for information and support. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Possible risks

A needle biopsy is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems afterwards.

Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a needle biopsy outweigh these possible risks.

Bleeding

It’s rare to have any bleeding after your needle biopsy. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice on what to do if you have bleeding.

Swelling

Some people have swelling after the test but this is uncommon. Let your doctor know if the area is swollen or very painful.

Information and help