Having fine needle aspiration
Your doctor has recommended that you have a fine needle aspiration to help diagnose a breast lump. This factsheet provides some standard information and advice about the procedure. However, you should always follow the instructions of your own specialist.
If you have any unanswered questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to ask your specialist or nurse for more information. It is natural to feel anxious, but knowing what to expect can often help.
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Fine needle aspiration is a quick and straightforward procedure. It is used to help find out whether a lump that has been found in your breast during a physical examination or mammogram (X-ray of the breast) is cancerous. It is a sometimes called a biopsy. The test involves taking some cells from the lump using a thin needle inserted into your breast. The cells collected are then sent away to be examined under a microscope.
While this is the most common type of breast biopsy, the results can sometimes be inconclusive. This means that your specialist may not be able to confirm if the lump in your breast is cancerous. For example, this may be because the lump is hard to find, making it difficult for your specialist to gather enough cells.
Fine needle aspiration is a routine outpatient procedure. An anaesthetic is not required.
There are no special preparations you need to make before your appointment and you can eat and drink normally before you arrive.
You will be given a consent form to sign. By doing this, you confirm that you understand what the procedure involves, including the benefits and risks, and give your permission for it to go ahead. Please see below for more information about possible side-effects and complications of this procedure. You need to know about these in order to give your informed consent.
What to expect
In a private room or cubicle, you will be asked to remove all your clothing above the waist, and may be asked to put on a surgical gown.
The procedure may be carried out in a clinic. Alternatively, if a mammogram or ultrasound machine is needed to locate the lump more exactly, you may go to a room containing the necessary equipment.
The procedure will be done while you sit or lie on an examination table. Your specialist may ask you to put your hands at your sides or raise them above your head, for example, to make it easier to find the lump.
During the procedure your specialist inserts a thin needle through the skin of your breast (usually just once) and then into the lump several times, to try and make sure enough cells are obtained. The whole process only lasts a few minutes. The cells are then sent for examination under a microscope.
You may find it uncomfortable when the needle is inserted, and you may be left with a bruised feeling. The needle pricks will be covered with a small plaster. You will not need any stitches, and it is extremely unlikely you will have any scarring from this procedure.
Once you are dressed, your specialist will talk you through the next steps and give you an appointment to discuss the test results. Its likely that your follow-up appointment will be about a week later. Once you are comfortable you will be able to go home.
After you return home
Most people can return to their usual activities straight away, although you are likely to feel a bit anxious as you wait for your results. Your breast may feel tender for a couple of days, but this should settle. Take a painkiller such as paracetamol if necessary. If you are worried by any pain that lingers or is unusual, and is not made better by paracetamol, you should contact the hospital or your doctor.
Fine needle aspiration is a commonly performed and generally safe procedure. For most people, the benefits of having a clear diagnosis, are much greater than any disadvantages.
However, like all invasive medical procedures, there are some risks. These can be divided into the risk of side-effects and the risk of complications.
These are the unwanted, but usually mild and temporary, effects of a successful procedure.
You may feel some uncomfortable pressure when the biopsy needle is inserted and the site may be tender for a couple of days. Most women do not develop any bruising.
This is when problems occur during or after the procedure. Most people are not affected. Your specialist will be very experienced at performing this type of procedure, but, even so, sometimes it does not result in a conclusive diagnosis. This may mean further testing. As fine needle aspiration is not usually repeated, you are likely to have an alternative type of biopsy.
There is a small possibility that the needle introduces an infection from the skin. This may be treated with antibiotics. Other complications are very uncommon.
The chance of complications depends on the exact type of procedure you are having and other factors such as your general health. You should ask your specialist to explain how these risks apply to you.
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society
Benign breast conditions
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