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Non-surgical Method for Diagnosing Breast Cancer Safe, Nearly as Effective as Surgical Biopsy, New Report Finds

Press Release

Press release announcing new report on the risks and benefits of taking drugs to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Some methods of minimally invasive biopsy for breast cancer are nearly as accurate as surgical biopsy but have much less risk of harms, according to a new report funded by HHS' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

The report, prepared by the ECRI Institute's Evidence-based Practice Center under contract to AHRQ's Effective Health Care Program, compares traditional surgical biopsies with various types of "core needle biopsies," which involve removing tissue through a special large hollow needle inserted through the skin.

The report, initiated in 2007, will provide important information so that doctors and patients can work together to make the best possible diagnostic choice for each individual patient.

Based on reviews of published scientific evidence to gauge the effectiveness, risk and impact of core needle biopsies on patients, the report found that certain core needle biopsies could distinguish between malignant and benign lesions approximately as accurately as open surgical biopsy, which is commonly considered the "gold standard" method of evaluating suspicious lesions. Core needle biopsies have a much lower risk of severe complications than open surgical procedures, researchers found in a report published this month in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The report also found that women who are initially diagnosed with breast cancer by surgical biopsy are more likely to undergo multiple surgical procedures during treatment than women who are initially diagnosed with breast cancer by core needle biopsy.

The report does not recommend changes to federal policy or to decisions regarding insurance coverage nor does it make clinical recommendations regarding under what circumstances open surgical biopsies or core needle biopsies should be pursued. These decisions should be made by a patient in consultation with her physician.

"One challenge of providing appropriate care for patients is finding balance between the accuracy of a test or procedure and causing the least harm and burden to patients," said AHRQ Director Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D. "This report indicates that core needle biopsy may strike that balance in many instances. Patients should continue to speak to their doctor when making important decisions about testing, and use all available information to make the decision that is right for them."

Open surgical biopsies, which involve removing a sample of tissue from the suspicious area through a surgical incision, are highly accurate. The procedure may be performed under general anesthesia, sedation plus local anesthesia, or local anesthesia only. But, while generally considered safe, open surgical biopsies are surgical procedures that, like all surgeries, carry a small amount of risk. Given that only a fraction of women who undergo breast biopsy procedures are diagnosed with cancer, use of traditional biopsy leads to large numbers of women who do not have cancer undergoing an invasive surgical biopsy.

By contrast, a core needle biopsy is a procedure that removes breast tissue through a hollow core needle inserted through the skin. The procedure is usually performed under local anesthesia. Multiple core-needle samples may be taken from the suspicious area.

Because it is less invasive, core-needle biopsy costs less than open surgical biopsy, consumes fewer resources, and generally is preferred by patients, according to the report.

The report found that recent technological improvements to core needle biopsy, including stereotactic guidance, ultrasound guidance and vacuum assistance, have improved the method's accuracy.

AHRQ's new report, Comparative Effectiveness of Core Needle and Open Surgical Biopsy for the Diagnosis of Breast Lesions, is the newest analysis from the Agency's Effective Health Care program. That program, authorized by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act, represents an important Federal effort to compare alternative treatments for health conditions and make the findings public. The program is intended provide information in order to help patients, doctors, nurses, and others choose the most effective treatments. Information, including the new report and summary guides for clinicians and patients, can be found at

For more information, please contact AHRQ Public Affairs: (301) 427-1998 or (301) 427-1855.

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Page last reviewed December 2009
Internet Citation: Non-surgical Method for Diagnosing Breast Cancer Safe, Nearly as Effective as Surgical Biopsy, New Report Finds: Press Release. December 2009. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.


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