Tests and Diagnosis
One of the biggest misconceptions about breast cancer is that if someone has no risk factors—like a family history of the condition—they won’t be affected. The truth is that one-third of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors. That’s why it’s important for women to have regular screening. The following tests are used to look for, assess and monitor breast cancer.
Physical Exams for Breast Cancer
- Breast Physical Examination: Your doctor will feel your breast and surrounding tissue for lumps, redness or inflammation.
- Breast Self-Exam (BSE): You should check your own breasts monthly for any lumps, heaviness or change in appearance. Anything abnormal should be checked by your doctor immediately.
Imaging Tests for Breast Cancer
- Mammogram: The most important tool used by doctors to diagnose, evaluate and monitor breast cancer. During the test, breasts are compressed and placed between two clear plates by a technician. Those plates are connected to a camera and two pictures for each breast are taken. This test can easily diagnose lumps and other abnormalities of the breast.
- Ultrasound: This test isn’t done to diagnose breast cancer, but to complement results from other tests. During the test, sound-emitting probes are moved on the breast to look at lumps and cysts.
- MRI Scan: This test is used for screening high-risk patients, women with dense breasts, and looking for additional masses in those that have already been diagnosed. It is also performed after cancer treatment to check the results. During the test, a patient lies on a table that slides inside a large machine, where images are taken of the breasts. Dye may be injected by syringe into your veins first to help make clearer images.
- CAT Scan and/or PET Scan: One of these tests may be done in patients diagnosed with breast cancer to see if it has spread to other parts of the body. Contrast solution dye is injected in the arm, and then the patient is moved into a doughnut-shaped machine, where x-rays are taken.
- Chest X-ray: This test is done to look for breast cancer spread in the lungs or other parts of the chest. It may also be done after treatment to check the results.
- Bone scan (Scinitigraphy): This test is done to see whether breast cancer has spread to the bones. During the test, radioactive material is injected in arm, making cells visible within 2-4 hrs. A special camera is then used to identify suspicious areas.
Biopsies for Breast Cancer
Once a lump or other abnormality is found, a biopsy—a non-emergency surgical procedure—is done to look for breast cancer cells. During the test, local anesthesia is given and a small sample of the area is taken for analysis.
Blood Tests for Breast Cancer
- Blood Cell Count: This test is done to see whether the blood has normal counts of various blood cells.
- Blood Chemistry: This test measures the level of certain substances in the blood to see how various organs—like the kidneys and liver—are functioning.
- Blood Marker: Used before, during and after cancer treatment, this test looks for cancer activity in the blood. During the test, protein material is injected into the blood through the arm.