Background: Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) of difficult breast lesions often results in an atypical (C3) report. The assortment of outcomes generated by C3 reports varies widely, and this has given rise to different clinical management pathways. Objective: To identify and objectively assess microscopic features associated with atypical/C3 breast FNA cases. Materials and Methods: A total of 230 atypical breast FNAs were subjected to a blind microscopic rescreen using a range of robust qualitative and quantitative cytological criteria including cellularity, architectural qualities, cytomorphology and background features. A logistic regression with a receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve and the resultant forward stepwise analysis were conducted to assess the results. This statistical testing was measured against malignant, benign proliferative and benign non-proliferative outcomes. Results: The malignant and benign proliferative outcomes showed a mixture of opposing protective and predictive individual cytological criteria. The stepwise analysis produced models demonstrating the best combination of individual cytological criteria for malignancy, proliferative and benign non-proliferative entities. In the malignancy model, discohesion, nuclear crowding within sheets, diminished numbers of bare bipolar nuclei and myoepithelial cells, the presence of tubules or necrosis and the absence of a cystic background were important features. The benign proliferative model suggested the same criteria but with the opposite implication and with the addition of several others, such as the presence of apocrine metaplasia, retained polarity and a speckled or coarse chromatin pattern. Age was a significant factor in malignant and proliferative outcomes. The benign non-proliferative stepwise analysis produced a model with fewer criteria (complex sheets, bare bipolar nuclei and a cystic background) limiting clinical application. Conclusion: Atypical/C3 breast cytology remains a legitimate reporting category. However, it is associated with a number of different histological outcomes. The incidence of the C3 category can be significantly reduced by controlling extrinsic factors and understanding the associated microscopic features.

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