The cells or tissue removed through needle or
surgical biopsy are promptly sent (along with the x-ray of the
specimen, if one was made) to the pathology laboratory. If the
excised lump is large enough, the pathologist can take a
preliminary look by quick-freezing a small portion of the tissue
sample, making it hard enough to slice into razor-thin sections
that can be examined under the microscope. A "frozen section"
provides an immediate if provisional diagnosis, and the surgeon may
be able to give you the result before you go home.
A frozen section is not 100 percent guaranteed, however. A more
thorough assessment will take a few days longer, while the
pathologist processes "permanent sections" of tissue that can be
examined in greater detail.
When the biopsy specimen is small-as is often the case when the
abnormality consists of mammographic calcifications only-many
doctors prefer to forego a frozen section so the tiny specimen can
be analyzed in its entirety.
The pathologist looks for abnormal cell shapes and unusual
growth patterns. In many cases the diagnosis will be clear-cut.
However, the distinctions between benign and cancerous can be
subtle, and even experts don't always agree. When in doubt,
pathologists readily consult their colleagues. If there is any
question about the results of your biopsy, you will want to make
sure your slides have been reviewed by more than one