Diagnosing breast cancer

Diagnosing breast cancer consists of several different tests in order to ensure the exact diagnosis and to find out as much as possible about the progression, stage and severity of the cancer. This way your treatment can become very personalized.

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There are different tests to take in order to diagnose breast cancer. The American Cancer Society breast cancer screening guidelines are developed to save lives by finding breast cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be successful. Among other recommendations, it says all women should begin having yearly mammograms by age 45, and can change to having mammograms every other year beginning at age 55. If you do not have health insurance that covers free breast cancer screening, you can contact the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) who provides low-income, uninsured, and underserved women access to timely breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services. If you are not participating in this program, you can go to your PCP if you fear that you have breast cancer. Your PCP will refer you to a specialist where your first tests will be done.

Testing to diagnose breast cancer

A mammogram (an x-ray of your breasts) is the first test you get but an ultrasound might also be necessary. If these tests are not conclusive, an MRI may be suggested, to retrieve pictures of the breast from more angles. The fourth option for testing whether you have breast cancer or not, is a biopsy, which is a test of the tissue cells from your breast. By taking a sample of these cells, you can check if they are cancerous. You may also need to have a sample taken from your lymph nodes, to see if the cancer has spread and has affected the lymph nodes too.

After the diagnosis, you will need more tests to establish what kind of breast cancer you have and what stage it's in. These next tests will also help determine the appropriate treatment for your condition.

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