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Breast Cancer

Causes & symptoms | Treatment | Questions

How Does the Doctor Make a Diagnosis?
Preliminary Test

Mammography
This is an X-ray technique for examining the breast. It is especially useful for detecting early changes in the breast when it may be difficult to feel a lump.
Ultrasound
This test uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body. It is usually used for women under 35.
Needle aspiration
Using a fine needle and syringe, the doctor takes a sample of cells from the breast lump and sends it to the laboratory to see if it contains any malignant cells. This simple technique may also be used to drain a benign cyst.
Needle biopsy
This test uses a slightly larger needle than the one used for aspiration. It is done under a local anaesthetic which numbs the area and allows the doctor to take a biopsy which is a small piece of tissue from the lump. The sample is examined in the laboratory to check for signs of cancer.
Colour Doppler
Certain types of ultrasound machine show the blood supply to the lump and this may help to distinguish between a cancer and a benign lump.
Blood tests
Samples of your blood will be taken to check your general health, the number of cells in your blood (blood count) will tell how well your kidneys and liver are working. Your blood may also be tested to see whether it contains particular chemicals (called markers) which are sometimes produced by cancer cells.
Excision biopsy
The whole lump is removed under a general anaesthetic and sent to a laboratory for examination.

Further Tests
Should earlier tests indicate that you have breast cancer, your doctor may want to test further to see if it has spread. This helps the doctor decide on the most effective type of treatment. Tests may include the following:

Liver ultrasound scan
To measure the size and position of a tumour.
Bone scan
A mildly radioactive substance is injected into a vein, usually in the arm. After a few hours the substance will be absorbed and the doctor uses a special camera to scan the body. Areas of extra bone activity will show up as the substance collects in areas of new bone formation. These areas appear as dark patches on the film and could indicate bone affected by cancer.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Using magnetism to create cross-sectional pictures of your body, this test can produce images of breast tissue, or other areas of the body.