Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS)

Diagnostic tests: biopsy

A biopsy involves taking a small sample of cells or tissue from the breast and looking at the sample under a microscope. The specialist who examines these samples (a pathologist) can see if they are cancerous. There are different ways of taking these biopsies, and here women talk about core biopsies and fine needle aspiration.
Needle (core) biopsy
A needle or core biopsy involves a doctor using a needle to obtain a sample of tissue to further investigate abnormalities found on screening mammograms and to obtain a definite diagnosis. These days, breast needle biopsies are very accurate because they are usually guided by either ultrasound or x-ray imaging and should be virtually pain-free because of the use of local anaesthetic, which is injected into the area first to numb it. Some women feel a little soreness or a sensation of pressure for a short time. Several biopsies are usually taken at the same time. Depending on the number taken, the breast tissue may be quite bruised and sore afterwards, and this may take a couple of weeks to completely disappear. Painkillers can be taken if the area is tender or painful. The tissue samples are sent to a laboratory to be looked at by a pathologist.
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Many of the women we interviewed talked about their experiences of having a core biopsy. Some said that, when they were told they needed a biopsy, they weren’t worried because they hadn’t had any lumps or other symptoms. Other women, though, said that it was at this point that they started to worry or realised that things were more serious than they had first suspected. One 72-year-old said she hadn’t expected anything to be wrong but alarm bells started ringing when she had to have a biopsy.
Some woman remembered being given local anaesthetic to numb the area. One woman said she was given more anaesthetic when she said she could feel something. For some, having a biopsy was painless.
Other, women, however, found having a biopsy uncomfortable or painful. A few said that, despite the discomfort, they just wanted to find out what was wrong. Many recalled how still they had to be during the procedure. One woman said she felt a bit faint but the staff were very caring.
A few women found having a biopsy extremely distressing, and found that their breast ached afterwards and was very bruised. One woman took painkillers to ease the pain. Several said that the core biopsy was actually more distressing than the surgery.
A few women said they felt ‘like a piece of meat’ when they were having a core biopsy. One said she and her husband spent seven hours in the hospital while different tests were carried out. She said she found having the biopsy undignified but knew that the doctors were only trying to find out what was wrong. Several women noted that, although they found the procedure uncomfortable, worrying or painful, the staff had been friendly and caring and had explained everything during the procedure. A few felt that staff could have been more sensitive when moving them into the correct position or could have explained the procedure and why they needed it in more detail.
Many women said that they had not known what to expect of the core biopsy beforehand and would have liked more information. Others, though, felt that information beforehand would have just made them more anxious. One woman said, because she was given no information about the biopsy, she postponed having it for several months. She was busy with work and was shocked that doctors had not told her that they would be looking for DCIS.
Some women had a biopsy on the same day as other tests, while others had to come back to have it on another day. A few were shocked to have all the tests on the same day because it wasn’t what they were expecting at the recall appointment. Many of those who did have to come back at a later date took someone with them, though a few said they preferred to go alone.
A few women explained that they had to come back for a biopsy on another day because the machine had broken down on the day of their appointment. This meant even more waiting to find out if anything was wrong and was often difficult. Other women said they had to have several biopsies either on the same day or later because the ones they had were inconclusive. Two of these women went on to have surgery to remove a larger piece of tissue, called an excision biopsy, before doctors could tell them whether anything was wrong (see Wide local excision: The operation). Another woman, who had private health insurance, said she had to wait several weeks for a biopsy because the doctor she wanted to be seen by was on holiday.
Two women were offered the choice of having a biopsy on the same day as other tests or a mammogram a year later because the doctor was concerned that there could be a problem developing. One of these women declined because she’d had no symptoms and felt there wouldn’t be anything wrong. She had another mammogram a year later and was diagnosed with DCIS. Another chose to have the biopsy there and then.
Fine needle aspiration
A fine needle aspiration (FNA) is a quick, simple procedure where cells are drawn off using a fine needle and syringe. The sample is sent to the laboratory where it is looked at under a microscope to see if any cancer cells are present. As the breast is sensitive, the needle aspiration may be quite uncomfortable and the breast may be bruised for a week or so afterwards.
Waiting for test results can be difficult and many women talked about how they felt during this time (see Waiting for results).
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Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated October 2013.


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