Your Diagnosis

Your doctor will perform a number of tests to determine whether a lump, an abnormal area on a mammogram, or other changes are caused by cancer or another condition.

Basic diagnostic techniques

Physical exam. Your doctor takes a detailed personal and family medical history, and assesses what your risk factors are for cancer. Your doctor will also perform blood tests to look for abnormalities and check your vital signs, such as pulse rate, blood pressure, and reflexes.

Palpation. Your doctor carefully feels the breast to determine the size, texture, and other characteristics of an abnormality — for example, whether a mass moves and is flexible, or is firm and fixed in the breast tissue.

Diagnostic Mammography. These mammograms help your doctor learn more about visible breast changes, such as a lump or thickening, and provide clearer, more detailed pictures of areas that appear abnormal on a screening mammogram. Diagnostic mammography may use digital techniques to help radiologists visually analyze any abnormalities the mammogram may pick up.

Other imaging techniques

Your doctor may also want you to have another imaging procedure to take a closer look at your breast tissue.

Ultrasonography. This non-invasive technique, also known as ultrasound, works by transmitting high-frequency sound waves, inaudible to the human ear, through your breast. The sound waves bounce off the tissues, air, and fluid in your breast, and the echoes that result are recorded and transformed into video or photographic images. Cancerous tissue produces different echoes than healthy tissue.

Words to know

Benign means that something is non-cancerous. Malignant means the opposite.

Doctors and radiologists sometimes send you for ultrasonography for routine cancer screening if you have dense breast tissue. It’s also used to better understand the specific characteristics of an abnormality. For example, unlike a mammogram, ultrasound can differentiate between a benign fluid-filled cyst and a solid mass, which may or may not be malignant.

Doctors may also use ultrasound to do a biopsy to remove a tissue sample. It helps doctors locate the precise position of a known tumor and guide the use of medical instruments during the procedure.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This non-invasive procedure uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed, high-contrast images of soft tissues, including the breast. MRI is more likely to detect tumors that mammograms may miss.

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