Health Tests

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What Happens During the Test?

The first part of this procedure occurs in the mammography department. Although you probably just recently had a mammogram, a radiologist will perform another one to find the abnormal area. While watching your x-ray on a screen, the radiologist will then decide where in your breast the abnormality must be. He or she will insert a needle into your breast in this area and will take another mammogram picture that shows the needle in place, to be sure the end of the needle is (hopefully) right in the middle of the area of concern. The needle might require some adjustment so that it is placed just right.

The needle is hollow and the radiologist can slide a small wire right through it. This wire has a tiny fishhook on its end so when the end of the wire reaches the point of the needle in your breast, it can grab onto your breast tissue and hold itself in place. Then the needle can be pulled out, sliding over the outside end of the wire and leaving the wire in your breast.

You will be taken to the operating room for the second part of the biopsy. You will have an IV (intravenous) line placed in your arm so that you can receive medicines through it. Your procedure may be done under either "local" or "general" anesthesia. Local anesthesia is similar to the kind most people get at the dentist — a numbing medicine is injected in a few places under the skin surface so that you won't feel anything in the specific area that will be worked on during the surgery. General anesthesia, on the other hand, causes you to be asleep and unconscious during the procedure and is administered by an anesthesiologist. For general anesthesia, you breathe a mixture of gases through a mask. After the anesthetic takes effect, a tube may be put down your throat to help you breathe.

An incision will be made in your breast right where the wire sticks out of your skin. The surgeon will feel along the wire and separate the breast tissue from the wire until he or she finds where the end of the wire is hooked into your breast. The surgeon knows that it is the area right at the end of the wire that looks abnormal on your mammogram and needs removal. He or she will take out a small sample of breast tissue from the area surrounding the end of the wire.

The biopsy sample is sent to the pathologist. Depending on the circumstances, the pathologist might be able to make a preliminary diagnosis or tell the surgeon that a slightly larger sample is needed. All specimens will be preserved to be evaluated more thoroughly within the next couple days in the pathology department.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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