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What is a breast biopsy?

Women's Care
Apr 22, 2021

St. Joseph’s/Candler Radiologist Dr. Jordan Dixon explains this common exam

It’s a very common, minimally-invasive test that women and men have done every day. However, if your doctor orders a breast biopsy following a recent breast screening, it understandably sounds scary.

A biopsy is a small piece of tissue that is removed and checked in a lab to see if cancer or other abnormal cells are present. In a breast biopsy, breast tissue is removed with a needle, or it may be removed during surgery. Dr. Jordan Dixon, St. Joseph's/Candler Radiologist

Dr. Jordan Dixon is a radiologist with St. Joseph’s/Candler. She performs on average 10 breast biopsies a day.

The good news? Most are benign.

“Most biopsies that are done in the United States are benign,” Dr. Dixon says. “But it’s important to sample anything that is new or different or anything that looks suspicious.”

Most breast biopsies are ordered by a referring physician following a mammogram, breast ultrasound or breast MRI that reveals something abnormal, Dr. Dixon says. Most patients have their appointment for biopsy within a week or two of having the breast screening done.

Related Article: When would I need a breast MRI exam?

It’s a quick and relatively painless process that requires no stitches or downtime afterwards, Dr. Dixon says. The biopsy process takes about 15 minutes, but patients should expect to spend about an hour for the whole appointment.

The area of the breast where the sample is taken is numbed with local lidocaine, which may sting or burn for some.

There are different types of breast biopsy: ultrasound guided biopsy, stereotactic (or mammogram) guided biopsy or MRI guided biopsy. Ultrasound guided biopsies are the most common, Dr. Dixon says. Your radiologist will use one of these imaging tools to guide a needle through a small opening in the skin to take a percutaneous sample of the suspect tissue.

“Then we send those small samples to the pathologist who looks at it under a microscope and tells us exactly what it is,” Dr. Dixon adds.

Test results are usually returned to your referring physician within three to five business days. The radiologist also gets the results. He or she will make a statement to whether the results are concordant (what the doctor expected) or discordant (not what he or she expected). Discordant labels are rare, Dr. Dixon says. Most results are concordant.

“If I’m expecting a fibroadenoma, which is a benign growth in the breast, and I get the pathology result that says fibroadenoma, then I say this is concordant,” Dr. Dixon shares as an example. “We’d then either do some follow up imaging in six months to make sure nothing has changed and everything looks as we expect, or we’d just say return to recommended annual screening.”

Related Article: Life-saving technology: Schedule your mammogram today

So if your physician orders a breast biopsy, remember you are not alone. These are common and most are benign. If something is cancerous, biopsies are a great tool to catch it early, when the tumor is small and treatment is more manageable. 

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