Last updated: Apr 24, 2008
breast-cancer-biopsy
Biopsies may involve needles (pictured) or open incisions.
Corbis
Biopsies are the most conclusive test for telling whether you have cancer, and if so, what type. A doctor administers local or general anesthesia and then removes a sample of the suspicious lump, whether it's a few cells, some tissue, or the entire lump. Pathologists examine the sample.


There are a few different kinds of biopsies used to help diagnose breast cancer: fine needle, core needle, stereotactic, and excisional.

Because biopsies are usually—though not always—the last step in your diagnosis, both the procedure itself and getting your results can be very stressful, but keep in mind that 80% of biopsy results come back benign. "The whole process is nerve-racking—it's a lot of hurry-up-and-wait and anxiety-provoking things," says Mehra Golshan, MD, a breast surgical oncologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "What happens is that something abnormal is seen and you have to hurry up and schedule a biopsy. It's angst-provoking. Some women will need a small sedative before the procedure. Coming in with a friend or significant other usually helps a lot."


Interpreting Biopsy Results
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Your doctor will explain what it means  Read more
Says Kerry Apicella, 62, who had a core needle biopsy, "I can see where some people would freak out. It's uncomfortable, and the minute they tell you not to move, of course, you feel you've got to move."

Robin Hershkowitz, program director for women's cancers at CancerCare, a national nonprofit support-services group based in New York City, suggests asking the doctor or technician to talk you through the test. "Usually it reduces your anxiety if someone says, 'This is what will happen for a minute and a half, and then this happens.' You can prepare for that," she says.