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If breast symptoms or the results of an imaging test (such as a mammogram) suggest you might have breast cancer, you may need a breast biopsy. During a biopsy, a doctor removes small pieces of breast tissue from the suspicious area so they can be looked at in the lab to see if they contain cancer cells.
Needing a breast biopsy doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Most biopsy results are not cancer, but a biopsy is the only way to find out for sure.
There are different kinds of breast biopsies. Some are done using a hollow needle, and some use an incision (cut in the skin). The type you have depends on a number of things, like:
Most of the time, a needle biopsy (rather than a surgical biopsy) can be done. Ask your doctor which type of biopsy you will have and what you can expect during and after the procedure.
This type of biopsy might be done to check the lymph nodes under the arm for cancer spread. This might be done at the same time as a biopsy of the breast tumor, or when the breast tumor is removed during surgery. Checking the lymph nodes can be done by core needle biopsy, or with a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) and/or an axillary lymph node dissection.
Regardless of which type of biopsy you have, the biopsy samples will be sent to a lab where a doctor called a pathologist will look at them. It typically will take at least a few days for you to find out the results.
If the doctor doesn't think you need a biopsy, but you still feel there’s something wrong with your breast, follow your instincts. Don’t be afraid to talk to the doctor about this or go to another doctor for a second opinion. If possible, try to see someone who specializes in breast health to discuss your concerns. A biopsy is the only sure way to diagnose breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Last Revised: January 14, 2022
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