Tests and Diagnosis

A lump or change in your breasts, or an unusual finding during a mammogram, does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. There are a number of medical problems which can cause similar results. Your doctor will need to do a history and physical examination including one or more breast exams.

  • Palpation: The lump itself - the size, texture and mobility - will tell a doctor a great deal about the condition. Your physician will carefully feel the lump and the surrounding tissue. Benign lumps often feel different from cancerous ones.
  • Mammography: During a mammogram, X-rays are taken of the breast. If an area on the mammogram looks suspicious or is not clear, additional X-rays may be needed.
  • Ultrasonography: Using high-frequency sound waves, ultrasonography can often show if a lump is solid or filled with fluid. This exam may be used along with mammography.
Your physician uses the results of these tests to determine how your treatment should proceed. It may be determined that no further tests or treatment are necessary, or your physician may decide the lump is most likely benign, and should be reevaluated over time. However, often the preliminary tests indicate fluid or tissue needs to be removed in order to make a diagnosis. This is done through a breast biopsy.

  • Aspiration or needle biopsy: A needle is used to remove fluid, or a small amount of tissue, from the lump. This determines whether the lump is a cyst filled with fluid, or a solid mass. Clear cyst fluid is not sent to the lab; but, any tissue removed through the needle biopsy procedure is sent to the laboratory to be checked for cancer cells.
  • Surgical biopsy: During this procedure, a surgeon removes part or all of the lump or suspicious area. The tissue is examined by a pathologist checking for cancer cells.
If cancer cells are present in the tissue removed from the lump, you and your physician, often in consultation with other specialists, will decide what method of treatment is appropriate.