Tests to find and diagnose breast cancer

Published Oct 5, 2017 at 12:00pm

Self-examination is often the first step toward discovering the presence of breast cancer. The importance of self-examinations is immeasurable, and many women are taught from a very young age to conduct such inspections to protect themselves from breast cancer. Breast cancer that is detected early is very treatable, but the longer a person with breast cancer goes undiagnosed the less effective and the more difficult that treatment becomes. But even women who don’t find anything during self-examinations may want to ask their physicians to conduct the following tests designed to find and diagnose breast cancer.

• Biopsy: A biopsy, which is the removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer, may be conducted to determine if breast cancer is present. When a lump in the breast is found, doctors may remove a small piece of the lump to perform a biopsy. There are four types of biopsies. An excisional biopsy is the removal of an entire lump of tissue, while an incisional biopsy removes just part of a lump or a sample of tissue. A core biopsy removes tissue using a wide needle, whereas a fine-needle aspiration, or FNA, biopsy uses a thin needle to remove the tissue.

• Blood chemistry studies: A blood chemistry study checks a blood sample to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual amount of a substance, whether that amount is higher or lower than normal, may be indicative of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.

• Clinical breast exam: A clinical breast exam, or CBE, is an examination of the breast that is conducted by a doctor or another health professional. The person conducting the examination will carefully feel the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.

• Magnetic resonance imaging test: Commonly referred to as an MRI or a nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, or NMRI, this procedure employs a magnet, radio waves and a computer to produce a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body.

• Mammogram: A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that can be used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease. Mammograms also may be used to check for breast cancer after a lump or other sign or symptom of the disease has been found. According to the National Cancer Institute, a mammogram performed on a pregnant woman may appear negative even if cancer is present. The NCI also notes that mammograms miss roughly 20 percent of breast cancers that are present at the time of screening.

• Physical exam: Women should get a routine physical examination of their bodies once a year. Physicians conducting such exams will check for general signs of health while also checking for signs of disease, including breast cancer. Breast cancer symptoms may include swelling and lumps on the breast or under the arms. During a routine physical, a doctor also will request the patient provide a history of her health habits and past illnesses, and women with a family history of breast cancer should make note of that history when discussing their own medical histories.

• Ultrasound exam: During an ultrasound exam, high-energy sound waves are bounced off internal tissues or organs to make echoes, which form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.