Your doctor will discuss your medical history, including any family history of breast cancer. Your breasts will be examined for characteristic symptoms, including lumps or thickening, nipple discharge or inversion, redness or changes in the skin or contour of the breast. If breast cancer is suspected, the following tests will be done:
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. It can often find tumors that are too small for you or your doctor to feel. The accuracy of a mammogram to detect cancer will depend on several factors. It may be affected by the size of the tumor, your age, breast density, and the skill of the radiologist. Although mammograms are the most sensitive test currently used to evaluate the breast, they will miss 10%-15% of breast cancers.
Other imaging tests, including MRIs, are being studied to see if they are more sensitive than mammograms.
During ultrasonography, sound waves (called ultrasound) are bounced off tissues. The echoes are converted into a picture. Ultrasound is used to evaluate lumps that have been identified through breast self-exam, clinical breast exam, or mammography. They help to see if a mass is solid or has liquid in it. Solid masses are generally more concerning than cystic or liquid-filled masses.
Your doctor will use these tests to help determine the next step. Your doctor may simply continue to monitor you for any future breast changes. Your doctor may also decide to do further testing. In some cases, your doctor may decide to remove a sample of tissue. The sample will be sent to a lab. This sample may be taken by one of the following methods:
Keep in mind that your doctor may recommend proceeding directly to biopsy if the lump is clinically suspicious. The only way to absolutely confirm the diagnosis of breast cancer is by tissue examination.
If cancer is found, your prognosis and treatments depend on the location, size, and stage of the cancer.
The following tests may be done to determine the stage:
To determine the stage, the doctor uses the following classification system:
In addition to staging, other factors play a role in your prognosis, including your general health and age. In a large study, for example, younger women (less than age 40), who were initially diagnosed with Stage I or II breast cancer, had lower survival rates compared to older patients. Researchers are investigating what may account for this unexpected result.
Breast cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast . Accessed August 21, 2012.
Breast cancer. Womens' Health.gov website. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/breast-cancer/ . Accessed January 27, 2006.
Casciato DA. Manual of Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009.
Breast cancer in woman. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated August 18, 2012. Accessed August 21, 2012.
5/11/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Gnerlich JL, Deshpande AD, Jeffe DB, Sweet A, White N, Margenthaler JA. Elevated breast cancer mortality in women younger than age 40 years compared with older women is attributed to poorer survival in early-stage disease. J Am Coll Surg. 2009;208:341-347.
Last reviewed October 2012 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Last Updated: 10/11/2012
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