Diagnosing breast cancer 

You may be diagnosed with breast cancer following routine breast screening, or you may have symptoms that you've seen your GP about.

Seeing your GP

See your GP as soon as possible if you notice any symptoms of breast cancer, such as an unusual lump in your breast or any change in the appearance, feel or shape of your breasts.

Your GP will examine you and, if they think your symptoms need further assessment, they'll refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic.

In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help GPs recognise the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and refer people for the right tests faster. To find out if you should be referred for further tests for suspected breast cancer, read the NICE 2015 guidelines on Suspected Cancer: Recognition and Referral.

Tests at the breast cancer clinic  hide

If you have suspected breast cancer, either because of your symptoms or because your mammogram has shown an abnormality, you'll be referred to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests.

Mammogram and breast ultrasound

If you have symptoms and have been referred by your GP, you'll have a mammogram to produce an X-ray of your breasts. You may also need an ultrasound scan.

If your cancer was detected through the NHS Breast Screening Programme, you may need another mammogram or ultrasound scan.

If you're under 35 years of age, your doctor may suggest that you only have a breast ultrasound scan. This is because younger women have denser breasts, which means a mammogram isn't as effective as ultrasound in detecting cancer.

Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breasts, showing any lumps or abnormalities. Your doctor may also suggest a breast ultrasound if they need to know whether a lump in your breast is solid or contains liquid.

Read more about breast screening.

Biopsy

biopsy is where a sample of tissue cells is taken from your breast and tested to see if it's cancerous. You may also need a scan and a needle test on lymph nodes in your armpit (axilla) to see whether these are also affected.

Biopsies can be taken in different ways, and the type you have will depend on what your doctor knows about your condition. Different methods of carrying out a biopsy are discussed below.

Needle aspiration may be used to test a sample of your breast cells for cancer or to drain a benign cyst (a small fluid-filled lump). Your doctor will use a small needle to extract a sample of cells, without removing any tissue.

Needle biopsy is the most common type of biopsy. A sample of tissue is taken from a lump in your breast using a large needle. You'll have a local anaesthetic, which means you'll be awake during the procedure, but your breast will be numb.

Your doctor may suggest that you have a guided needle biopsy (usually guided by ultrasound or X-ray, but sometimes MRI is used) to obtain a more precise and reliable diagnosis of cancer and to distinguish it from any non-invasive change, particularly ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

Vacuum-assisted biopsy, also known as mammotome biopsy, is another type of biopsy. During the procedure, a needle is attached to a gentle suction tube, which helps to obtain the sample and clear any bleeding from the area.

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Further tests for breast cancer  show

If a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed, more tests will be needed to determine the stage and grade of the cancer, and to work out the best method of treatment.

Scans and X-rays

Computerised tomography (CT) scans, or chest X-ray and liver ultrasound scans, may be needed to check whether the cancer has spread to your lungs or liver. An MRI scan of the breast may be needed to clarify or to assess the extent of the condition within the breast.

If your doctor thinks that the cancer could have spread to your bones, you may need a bone scan. Before having a bone scan, a substance containing a small amount of radiation, known as an isotope, will be injected into a vein in your arm. This will be absorbed into your bone if it's been affected by cancer. The affected areas of bone will show up as highlighted areas on the bone scan, which is carried out using a special camera.

Tests to determine specific types of treatment

You'll also need tests that show whether the cancer will respond to specific types of treatment. The results of these tests can give your doctors a more complete picture of the type of cancer you have and how best to treat it. The types of test you could be offered are discussed below.

In some cases, breast cancer cells can be stimulated to grow by hormones that occur naturally in your body, such as oestrogen and progesterone.

If this is the case, the cancer may be treated by stopping the effects of the hormones, or by lowering the level of these hormones in your body. This is known as "hormone therapy".

During a hormone receptor test, a sample of cancer cells will be taken from your breast and tested to see if they respond to either oestrogen or progesterone. If the hormone is able to attach to the cancer cells (using a hormone receptor), they're known as "hormone receptor positive".

While hormones can encourage the growth of some types of breast cancer, other types are stimulated by a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).

These types of cancer can be diagnosed using a HER2 test, and treated with medication to block the effects of HER2. This is known as "biological" or "targeted" therapy.

Want to know more?

Breast Cancer Care: Diagnosis.

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Stage and grade of breast cancer  show

Stage of breast cancer

When your breast cancer is diagnosed, the doctors will give it a stage. The stage describes the size of the cancer and how far it has spread.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is sometimes described as Stage 0. Other stages of breast cancer describe invasive breast cancer (see below).

  • Stage 1  the tumour measures less than 2cm and the lymph nodes in the armpit aren't affected. There are no signs that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body.
  • Stage 2  the tumour measures 2-5cm or the lymph nodes in the armpit are affected, or both. There are no signs that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body.
  • Stage 3  the tumour measures 2-5cm and may be attached to structures in the breast, such as skin or surrounding tissues. The lymph nodes in the armpit are affected. However, there are no signs that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body.
  • Stage 4  the tumour is of any size and the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

This is a simplified guide. Each stage is divided into further categories: A, B and C. If you're not sure what stage you have, ask your doctor.

TNM staging system

The TNM staging system may also be used to describe breast cancer, as it can provide accurate information about the diagnosis. T describes the size of the tumour, N describes whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, and M gives an indication of whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Grade of breast cancer

The grade describes the appearance of the cancer cells.

  • Low grade (G1)  the cells, although abnormal, appear to be growing slowly.
  • Medium grade (G2)  the cells look more abnormal than low-grade cells.
  • High grade (G3)  the cells look even more abnormal and are more likely to grow quickly.

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Breast cancer symptoms

Not all breast changes mean breast cancer, but some do. Know what to look out for, such as changes in shape

Faulty genes and breast cancer

The genes associated with breast cancer, what it means to have a faulty gene, and who gets tested

Cancer: your test results

If you're waiting for your test results, find out how you can prepare for your consultation

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Page last reviewed: 19/08/2014

Next review due: 19/08/2016