Know the Typical Diagnosis Process
If breast cancer is suspected, your doctor may conduct a number of diagnostic tests and procedures such as:
- Clinical breast exam. During this exam, your doctor uses his or her fingertips to examine your breasts and the areas around your armpits and your collarbone for lumps or other changes. Your doctor assesses how large the lumps are, how they feel, and how close they are to your skin and muscles.
- Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of your breast tissue. To assess your breast tissue, your breast will be pressed flat as much as possible. During a mammogram, you stand in front of a machine with your shirt off. Two flat plastic plates come together to compress your breast tissue. A radiology technician takes the X-rays. The compression of the mammogram can be uncomfortable. Ask the technician what to expect and speak up if you’re feeling pain.
- Ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create pictures of a suspicious breast mass. Your doctor may recommend an ultrasound in certain situations.
- Using a needle to remove cells for testing. A biopsy procedure involves removing a sample of suspicious tissue for laboratory testing. A breast biopsy is commonly done by inserting a needle into the breast lump and drawing cells or tissue from the area. When analyzed in a laboratory, your tissue sample reveals whether you have breast cancer and, if so, what type of breast cancer you have.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will work to determine the extent (stage) of your cancer. Your cancer’s stage helps your doctor determine treatment options. Staging tests include blood tests and imaging tests, such as X-ray and computerized tomography (CT).
The stages of breast cancer are:
- Stage I. The tumor is no more than 2 centimeters (cm) in diameter (3/4 inch) and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage II. The tumor may be up to 5 cm (about 2 inches) in diameter and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes. Or the tumor may be larger than 5 cm and no cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes.
- Stage III. The tumor may be larger than 5 cm (about 2 inches) in diameter and may involve several nearby lymph nodes. Lymph nodes above the collarbone may also contain cancer cells.
- Stage IV. Cancer at this stage has spread beyond the breast to distant areas, such as the bone, brain, liver or lungs.