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Diagnosing Breast Cancer

A brief description of common diagnostic tests for breast cancer.


To help find the cause of any sign or symptom, a doctor will perform a careful physical exam and ask about personal and family medical history. In addition, he or she may do one or more of the following breast exams:

Clinical Breast Exam
A doctor can tell a lot about a lump by carefully feeling it and the tissue around it. Scattered, lumpy changes in the breast, especially the upper, outer region, usually aren’t cancerous. In the early stages, the lump may move freely beneath the skin when it’s pushed with the fingers. In more advanced stages, the lump usually adheres to the chest wall or the skin over it. Benign lumps often feel different from cancerous ones — the doctor can examine the size and texture of the lump and determine whether the lump moves easily.

X-rays of the breast can give the doctor important information about a breast lump.

Using high-frequency sound waves, ultrasonography can often show whether a lump is a fluid-filled cyst (not cancer) or a solid mass (which may or may not be cancer). This exam may be performed in conjunction with mammography.

Based on these exams, a doctor may decide that no further tests are needed and no treatment is necessary. In such cases, a doctor may need to check the woman regularly to watch for any changes.

Often, fluid or tissue must be removed from the breast before a diagnosis can be made. A woman’s doctor may refer her for further evaluation to a surgeon or other health care professional who has experience with breast diseases. These doctors may perform:

Fine-needle Aspiration
A thin needle is used to remove fluid and/or cells from a breast lump. If the fluid is clear, it may not need to be checked by a lab.

Needle Biopsy
Using special techniques, tissue can be removed with a needle from an area that looks suspicious on a mammogram but cannot be felt. Tissue removed in a needle biopsy goes to a lab to be checked by a pathologist for cancer cells.

Surgical Biopsy
In an incisional biopsy, a surgeon cuts out a sample of a lump or suspicious area. In an excisional biopsy, a surgeon removes all of a lump or suspicious area and an area of healthy tissue around the edges. A pathologist then examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.


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Inflammatory¬†Breast Cancer, check out It’s not just lumps you have to look for.

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