Percutaneous sampling of non-palpable breast lesions can be done with the guidance of ultrasound or
stereotaxis. This syllabus chapter will discuss these procedures and their indications as well as
contrast the appropriateness of the various modalities.
The procedures that are suitable for ultrasound guidance are:
|fine-needle aspiration biopsy (FNAB)|
|large-core needle biopsy (LCNB)|
|preoperative fine wire localization|
The guidance technique is the same for all of these procedures. The method of ultrasound guidance
will be discussed first, followed by descriptions and details of the individual procedures.
It is critical that the entire imaging investigation be complete prior to performance of
any procedure. These techniques all produce some degree of hematoma. It is preferable to obtain
magnification mammographic views prior to intervention, so the true marginal characteristics can be
documented without confusion. Irregular increased soft tissue density and indistinct borders due to
hematoma can cause a benign mass to appear suspicious.
Bleeding diatheses and anticoagulant therapy should be dealt with prior to large needle
procedures. Antibiotic prophylaxis is not usually used.
The basis of any ultrasound- guided procedure is the use of real-time scanning to
precisely monitor the passage of the needle through the skin and breast tissue to the target lesion.
This requires that the lesion be visible with ultrasound, and that the lesion can be approached in such a
manner that there is no risk of the needle entering the pleural space, or in some cases, an underlying
prosthesis. The size of the lesion is immaterial. With skill, any mass large enough to perceive can be
accurately targeted. Whether the breast is primarily fatty or dense is also unimportant, as long as the
lesion can be demonstrated.
Any high-frequency hand-held transducer may be used. Currently, linear array probes are
more commonly used for both diagnosis and intervention. To see the needle with a linear array probe
requires that the needle be almost perpendicular to the beam, i.e. parallel to the surface of the probe.
This requirement may necessitate the needle being inserted from a point distant to the edge of the probe,
especially for deeper lesions. This makes targeting more challenging because it increases the
opportunity for deflection of the needle out of the scan plane, especially with small bore needles and in
more fibrous tissue. These issues are less of a problem for more superficial masses, when the needle can
be inserted closer to the probe, traverse the breast tissue obliquely, and yet still be relatively
perpendicular to the beam.
Execution of the Procedure
Many options exist for executing the free-hand technique. Some use a two-person approach.
It is much simpler for the sonologist to scan with one hand and insert the needle with the other. With
practice, intuitive hand-eye coordination develops. This allows instantaneous minor adjustments of the
scanning angle and needle angle to ensure continuous maintenance of the needle and lesion within the scan
Any needle procedure should conform to clean (antiseptic) principles. The sonologist
should wear gloves, more for their own protection than for the patient's. The skin and probe should be
prepped with antiseptic. Ideally, sterile coupling gel should be used, but the gel does not come in
contact with the needle insertion site. The tray equipment used for each procedure will vary.
With any kind of lesion, but especially for small solid masses, it is helpful to confirm
as accurately as possible, that the sampling portion of the needle (the tip for FNAB, and the notch for
LCNB) is within the lesion and to avoid volume averaging. It is theoretically possible that the needle
will appear to be in the lesion when it actually lies immediately adjacent to the mass. To check needle
position, there are maneuvers the radiologist can use, but pathologists need to be aware of this pitfall.
It is preferable to avoid the nipple-areolar complex for needle procedures because of its higher pain
sensitivity. Surgeons prefer to make circumareolar incisions whenever possible because scars at the
areolar border are potentially inconspicuous. If, for wire localizations, it is feasible to use the
areolar border for needle insertion, both surgeon and patient will be appreciative.
If a lesion is visible both with mammography and ultrasonography, it is usually preferable to perform
the procedure with sonographic guidance. This is faster, less costly and allows greater patient comfort.
The patient is supine and no breast compression is required. Ultrasound-guidance allows more flexibility
in choosing the needle entry site; and is useful in avoiding puncture of the nipple-areolar complex. It
is also an advantage in conservative surgery for cancer because the shortest route from the skin to the
lesion can be used.
For sampling, the ultrasound free-hand technique allows multidirectional sampling of the
entire volume of the mass, rather than being limited to the perpendicular access provided by stereotaxis.
Aspiration is not medically indicated for lesions that fulfill the strict sonographic
criteria for a simple cyst. However, if a simple cyst is painful/tender or if it is palpable, the
patient may prefer aspiration for comfort or peace-of-mind. Any lesion with internal echoes and
posterior enhancement may be a complex/complicated cyst. Aspiration of these masses may allow definitive
In my practice, if a complicated but asymptomatic cyst is seen, I give the patient the
options of aspiration or short interval follow-up.
If a cyst is completely echo free on sonography, and if the fluid obtained is along the
spectrum of white/yellow/green - then the fluid may be discarded. If there are any sonographic findings
such as internal echoes, ill-defined margins or wall thickening, or if the fluid obtained is bloody or
gelatinous, then the fluid is sent for cytological evaluation.
There are various methods for cyst aspiration once the needle is positioned. I prefer to
attach the needle to a 10 cc syringe in a light-weight plastic aspiration gun prior to inserting the
needle. Once the needle is in place, flexing the finger on the "trigger" pulls back the plunger to
create a vacuum. Others prefer to use a plain syringe without a gun. This becomes more awkward because
the needle must be immobilized while the plunger is pulled back. Another option is to interpose
connecting tubing between the needle and syringe, and to have an assistant operate the syringe. Finally,
the use of a vacutainer to create negative pressure has been described. 
Even if high fluid viscosity from some inspissated cysts precludes their complete evacuation, it is
always possible to aspirate sufficient material from the lesion to allow cytological confirmation of its
Why Use Ultrasound For Palpable Cysts?
Palpable cysts are often successfully aspirated with only finger-guidance, and usually
this suffices. Even palpable lesions can be missed though, and if aspiration yields no fluid, it is
tempting for clinicians to conclude that the mass must be solid. Because of the far different
implications of a solid mass, it is prudent for clinicians to refer patients for ultrasound imaging, with
or without guided aspiration, prior to rendering a diagnosis of "solid". Often, the clinically attempted
aspiration has failed because the cyst has been pushed away rather than penetrated by the needle.
Sometimes, the cyst may feel superficial, but actually be much deeper than anticipated. I call this "The
Princess and the Pea" phenomenon. These problems are simply dealt with using ultrasound.
Certainly, when a cyst is close to the chest wall, or in an augmented breast, the
increased precision of needle positioning available with ultrasound guidance is critical.
Finally, although a relatively uncommon situation, intracystic masses both benign and
malignant, may go undiagnosed if aspiration is done without ultrasound. It is feasible that a needle
could be positioned within the fluid component of such a mass, fluid obtained and the palpable lump could
disappear, without the solid component being sampled. Sonographic evaluation of such a mass would not
overlook the solid component .
Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy of Solid Masses
Tissue diagnosis is appropriate for new or enlarging solid masses. If a given mass
appears benign using both mammographic and sonographic criteria
then short interval follow-up without tissue diagnosis may be a reasonable
Incorporation of FNA in the diagnostic pathway is a team endeavor. The clinical
impression will contribute in the case of a palpable mass. The mammographic and sonographic impressions
are critical in the assessment of non-palpable lesions. The cytopathologist should be willing to make a
diagnosis, given an adequate specimen. Finally the patient and her physician(s) must have an
understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the whole process.
In the case of a lesion that is probably benign by imaging criteria, the addition of
benign cytology can increase diagnostic confidence and encourage the patient to choose follow-up rather
More importantly, in the case of an otherwise benign-appearing mass, the unexpected
finding of suspicious or malignant cytology can minimize the small but real possibility of a false
negative imaging diagnosis. Cytology's main limitation is its inability to reliably distinguish in-situ
from invasive cancer. For this reason, histologic biopsy is preferred to confirm invasive malignancy
pre-operatively, to allow definitive surgery, including node dissection.
If a solid-appearing mass is somewhat likely to be a complicated cyst, FNA can be done
first, and is preferable to core biopsy since accurate diagnosis and complete evacuation can be achieved
with a much smaller and cheaper needle. Furthermore, the confident diagnosis of cyst after FNA
eliminates the need for short-interval follow-up.
Reliable FNA requires accurate targeting of the lesion, aggressive sampling to obtain
adequate tissue for diagnosis, and expert cytopathologic interpretation. Furthermore, because false
negatives do occur, the radiologist must be prepared in a small percentage of cases, to recommend
histologic biopsy (either percutaneous or surgical) based on mammographic and/or sonographic findings,
even if cytology is benign. For this reason it is preferable that the sonologist interpreting the scan
and performing the FNA procedure is also skilled in mammographic diagnosis, so that a final opinion
encompassing input from all the modalities can be offered. Ideally, the radiologist should review the
imaging when the cytology is available to ensure concordance between the two, and then offer
recommendations regarding surveillance or other management.
There is no single correct way to perform a fine needle biopsy. I prefer to use a 20
gauge needle with a 10 cc syringe and aspiration gun. Three separate needle passes, each with multiple
to-and-fro excursions provide sufficient cellular material in the vast majority of cases. In my
experience, the incidence of inadequate specimens is less than 2%. The most reasonable explanation for
this occurrence is that some lesions are too densely fibrotic to shed cells into the needle.
Others use different needle sizes and a variety of methods. Aspirating guns are available
in many styles. An assistant can also generate negative pressure if connecting tubing is positioned
between the needle and syringe. Finally, some experts use a "no aspiration" biopsy technique; the needle
hub is left open while the excursions are made. No negative pressure is used and the material enters the
needle shaft by capillary action
Once the material is in the needle shaft, there may be a small amount of pinkish material
visible in the hub of the needle. Rarely (more often with cancers) will bloody fluid be voluminous
enough to enter the syringe.
Handling of the specimen will be dictated by the preference of the cytopathologist. The
material can either be expressed onto slides and either air-dried or fixed in alcohol, or be rinsed into
saline solution - later to be spun down and filtered for examination.
After each needle pass and on completion of the procedure, the patient should be
instructed to firmly compress the area with clean gauze, including the needle insertion site, the needle
path and the mass itself. She should be told to anticipate a visible bruise. The vast majority of
patients can return to their normal activities and require no analgesics. It is prudent to ask them to
avoid ASA, and to use acetaminophen if necessary for pain after the procedure.
How Radiologists Use Cytologic Interpretation
Radiologists expect that the cytology will be reported as definitively malignant,
suspicious for malignancy, benign but nonspecific, definitively benign, or inadequate. The definitive
benign category includes fibroadenomas, cysts, abscesses and lymph nodes. Lesions diagnosed as malignant
or suspicious should go on to histologic biopsy (percutaneous or surgical) regardless of their imaging
characteristics. Lesions that are highly suspicious on imaging should logically be biopsied initially
with large-core techniques, since in these circumstances, a benign cytology would be sufficiently
reassuring to allow surveillance.
If a mass appears benign on imaging and yields definitive or nonspecific benign cytology,
then short-interval follow-up is a safe alternative to surgery.
However, if a mass appears indeterminate on imaging - a nonspecific benign cytology result
should prompt a histologic biopsy. If an indeterminate mass on imaging yields a definitive cytological
diagnosis of fibroadenoma, then surgery can be avoided, provided the patient will comply with imaging
follow-up. Clearly, the threshold for recommending surgery will vary by institution and region, by
medicolegal climate, by acceptance of the technique by patients and their referring doctors and by the
experience of the radiologist and pathologist. It is highly recommended that accurate records of
surgical results be obtained to allow cytologic-histologic correlation for patients having surgery.
Patients not having surgery require documentation of stability on follow-up imaging. Currently, I
recommend repeat measurements at 6, 12, 24 and 36 months. This is based on Sickles protocol ,
which is for lesions that are "probably benign" on mammography, but have not been subjected to
For the small number of specimens that are hypocellular, I am comfortable to regard them
as nonspecific benign, as long as I am certain that targeting was accurate. By doing so, this would not
delay surgery for an otherwise suspicious or indeterminate mass, but would not prompt surgery for an
otherwise benign appearing mass.
Limitations of Cytology
Although cytology obtained with ultrasound guidance has proven highly accurate and is
potentially tremendously helpful in the diagnostic sequence, its limitations must be acknowledged and
understood to avoid errors.
The concept of masses that do not shed cells into the needle has been introduced above.
This is a reasonable explanation for hypocellular specimens and can contribute to nonspecific benign
cytology. The vast majority of these lesions will be relatively fibrotic and the most common is the
hyalinizing fibroadenoma. In contrast, most cancers shed their cells readily and are easily and
accurately diagnosed with FNA. The notable exception to this generalization is lobular cancer. It is
for this reason that nonspecific benign cytology should not take priority over the imaging impression
when masses appear suspicious or indeterminate at imaging, and why masses that are borderline or
suspicious on imaging should be initially sampled with LCNB.
Cytology cannot reliably distinguish fibroadenomas from phylloides tumors. The diagnosis
of phylloides can certainly be suggested if there is a predominance of the stromal component, but this is
not always present. The distinction is relevant because 10-15% of phylloides tumors are malignant.
Thus, even cytology definitive for fibroadenoma should not delay surgery for a mass otherwise suggestive
of a phylloides tumor. There are no definitive criteria and considerable overlap can occur. Sonographic
criteria include size greater than 3 cm in greatest dimension, prominent cysts within a solid mass, or
documented growth of greater than 20% in each of three dimensions in a six month period.  The
latter criterion is conservative since fibroadenomas can fluctuate within this range during a menstrual
A further limitation of cytology is the inability to definitively diagnose hamartomas.
Because these adenolipomas are composed of normal breast tissue elements, it is not surprising that
partial sampling without architecture could be interpreted as nonspecific benign or even fibroadenoma.
Hamartomas should not require sampling if they display the pathognomonic mammographic finding of fat
within the mass. Not all do, however, so some will present for needle biopsy. Even those with intrinsic
fat on mammography may demonstrate growth. In these cases they may be referred for tissue diagnosis
simply to exclude malignant findings.
Finally, in the unlikely coincidence of a cancer that appears benign both mammographically
and sonographically and yields benign cytology, there would presumably be significant interval growth
demonstrable on the six month follow-up examination, allowing a delayed, albeit minimally so, diagnosis.
The sensitivity and specificity of FNA reported in the literature vary, but are as high as
99% and 100% respectively. Each radiologist must determine their own accuracy by meticulous practice
audits. My own data have shown 95%sensitivity and 93% accuracy .
Unfortunately, it is well known that there is a paucity of trained cytopathologists in
many parts of North America. This is part of the reason for more widespread use of core needle sampling
instead of the less invasive FNA in the U.S. relative to Europe and parts of Canada. The difference in
cost is also not trivial. The cost of core needle biopsy in the U.S. ranges up to
, and in a managed-care environment there should be encouragement to train more
cytopathologists. Although not representative of U.S. costs, combined FNA and cytology in British
Columbia costs the equivalent of $63.00 U.S.
Ultrasound-Guided Large Core Needle Biopsy
If expert cytopathologic consultation is not easily obtained,
then larger core needles can provide specimens interpretable by non-specialized pathologists. Needle
sizes up to 11 gauge are commonly used. Hematoma is a more likely complication than with smaller bore
needles. Needle track seeding has also been reported 
There are two styles of large core needle in widespread use: the spring-activated device
(16, 14, 12G), and the directed vacuum assisted device, or DVAB (11G). The cost differential is
considerable: spring activated needles cast $20- 30, and DVAB needles cost $250. The advantage of the
larger needle is a lower incidence of undersampling. There is a higher risk of bleeding.
The technique for core needle biopsy is similar to that described above. Local anaesthetic should be
used generously, Because of the large needle size, a scalpel nick must be made in the skin. For
spring-activated needles, either a short (15mm) or long (22mm) throw can be chosen. One must ensure that
the trajectory of the needle will be parallel to the chest wall, and that when in the post-fire position,
that the tip will not injure an adjacent structure, or cause pneumothorax. Ultrasound guidance is used
to position the needle tip proximal to the mass. The ideal position of the needle tip must be determined
according to the size of the lesion, the length of throw of the needle, and the size of the sampling
notch. The number of cores required should be determined in conjunction with the pathologist, and after
careful audit of the institutions previous experience. Commonly, five or more cores are obtained, but
one can be sufficient.
For DVAB, the needle is placed posterior to the mass, to allow the lesion to be sucked
into the chamber when suction is applied.
When a lesion is small, there is a possibility that it will be inconspicuous after biopsy,
or that the biopsy might remove the entire lesion. In the case of cancers, it is important to mark the
biopsy site. Commercially available clip devices have long been available for 11-gauge devices.
Recently, clip marking devices have become available for 14-gauge needles. One can also use home-made
solutions; I use pediatric titanium vascular clips. 
Stereotaxis is required for percutaneous biopsy of calcifications, since these are not usually
adequately seen with ultrasound. It is also required for masses that are not visible on ultrasound, or
for masses that are visible, but would be more safely sampled stereotactically than sonographically.
Stereotaxis uses the principle of parallax to determine the depth of needle placement when the needle is
inserted directly over a lesion.
The stereotactic machine can be a dedicated (not used for anything else) table where the patient lies
prone with her breast pendant through an opening, and the compression device and needle holder beneath.
Alternatively, a stereotactic device can "add-on" to a mammography machine, allowing the patient to be
sitting or decubitus during the procedure. This is also more economical because the machine can be used
for regular mammography when not in use for biopsies.
Stereotactic units can be film-based or digital. Film-based units increase the time required for the
procedure. Any images that are obtained must be developed in the processor, which typically takes 90
seconds. Digital stereotactic units use digital image receptors instead of x-ray film, so whenever an
x-ray picture is made during the exam, the image can be viewed on the monitor in the room within seconds.
After the patient is placed in the machine, a scout view is obtained to confirm that the patient is
properly positioned, and that the lesion is visible within the small area included on the stereo image.
Next, two x-ray images are taken at approximately 30 degrees apart, 15 degrees on either side of neutral.
These are displayed side-by-side on the monitor as the "stereo pair." The radiologist places a cursor on
the center of the lesion on both views, and this determines the location of the lesion in the "X" and "Y"
planes. By calculating the shift of the lesion on the two angled views, the machine determines the depth
to which the needle must be inserted (the "Z" axis). The computer is programmed for the type of needle
to be used, and this adjusts the position of the needle holder. That is, for a spring activated LCNB,
the needle would be placed in the "pre-fire" position in the breast. The radiologist then "fires" the
needle, so after deployment, the collecting notch will be at the level of the lesion. For DVAB of a
mass, the needle can be placed alongside the lesion, so that when the collecting chamber is exposed and
the vacuum activated, the lesion will be sucked into the notch, and cut by the cutting edge. For DVAB of
an area of calcification, the needle can be centered within the area, or along side the group. The
position of the collecting chamber can be rotated around the clock face, as desired. Specifically, it
can be positioned away from an artery or implant, if close to the biopsy site, to minimize trauma during
Pre-Operative Fine Wire Localization
If a definite diagnosis cannot be made percutaneously, then fine-wire localization and
surgical excision will be necessary. This can occur when a lesion doesn't meet the imaging criteria for
surveillance, yet is not amenable to percutaneous biopsy. Some lesions are sufficiently conspicuous on
regular mammograms to allow fine wire placement, yet not sufficiently conspicuous on a stereo pair to
allow stereotaxic biopsy. For a lesion to be targeted
stereotactically, it must be conspicuous on both images of a "stereo pair." A faint mass detected at
mammography might be visible on one of the stereo pair, but obscured on the other by superimposed dense
tissue. Similarly, extremely fine or diffuse calcification may not be suitable for stereotactic
Also, lesions that have shown atypical ductal hyperplasia or DCIS by core biopsy require
excision, because these may be upstaged at surgery: DCIS to invasive cancer (33%) , and ADH
to cancer (31%) . Underestimation is less prevalent when more tissue is sampled, either by
removing a greater number of specimens, or by vacuum-assisted needles.
As previously discussed, ultrasound guidance for localization procedures is preferable
whenever feasible. This necessitates that the mass be detectable with ultrasound, and so
microcalcifications usually cannot be localized this way. With ultrasound, the shortest route from the
skin to the lesion can be used, and, there is an almost infinite choice of puncture sites
circumferentially. As with other interventional procedures, US guidance for wire localization is
particularly appropriate for masses at the periphery of the breast or in patients with prostheses.
I find that with creative patient positioning, most masses are within 2 cm of the skin,
which means that ultrasound guidance can usually be used, and in virtually all cases, the masses can be
skewered on the wire. In general, it should not be necessary to obtain mammographic images of the breast
after US guided wire localization. Most surgeons will become comfortable with a well-labeled diagram
indicating the location of the mass relative to the wire-insertion site, and the depth of the lesion.
Some will prefer to have at least one conventional global image of the breast to help them with
orientation. Presumably, this requirement is part of the learning curve for the surgeon, and will
diminish with experience.
Specimen examination can be performed after US guided localization with either mammography
Ultrasound and stereotactic guidance for interventional
procedures in the breast are an important addition to the radiologist's armamentarium. The choice of
imaging modality, and the sampling needle used should be based on the visibility of the lesion, the
anticipated diagnosis of the lesion, the availability of cytopathologic expertise, and financial
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