A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissue from a suspicious mass. The tissue or cells are then examined under a microscope to check for cancer 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 cancerous or benign.

There are many types of biopsy procedures. The method recommended by your doctor will depend on how large the breast lump or abnormal area is; where in the breast it is located; how many lumps or abnormal areas -- such as suspicious calcifications -- are present; if you have any other medical problems; and what your personal preferences are.

What Are The Types Of Biopsies?

Fine needle aspiration (FNA): A non-surgical form of breast biopsy in which a small 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 collapse. If the lump is solid, cells can be smeared onto slides for examination.

Core biopsy: Similar to FNA, but a larger needle is used because actual breast tissue is removed, rather than a tiny sampling of cells. A sample of the lump is removed, but not the whole lump. The types of core biopsies include ultrasound-guided core biopsy and stereotactic biopsy.

Ultrasound-guided core biopsy: This technique obtains breast tissue without surgery. A biopsy needle is placed into the breast tissue. Ultrasound helps confirm correct needle placement - using sound waves reflected off breast tissue - 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 mammography unit. Using a local anesthetic, a small opening in the skin and a sterile biopsy needle is placed into the breast tissue area to be biopsied. A computer is used to verify the exact needle placement. Multiple tissue samples are then taken through the needle to sample the suspicious area on the mammogram.

Open excisional biopsy: This is the method of surgically removing 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 (removal of the cancerous tumor).

Tissue or cells that are removed using any of the methods described above are given to a pathologist, a physician who specializes in diagnosing abnormal tissue changes.