What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the abnormal growth of the cells lining the breast lobules or ducts. These cells grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. Both women and men can develop breast cancer, although breast cancer is rare in men.
If you have symptoms of breast cancer, your general practitioner (GP) will take a full medical history, which will include your family history. They will also perform a physical examination, checking your breasts and the lymph nodes under your arms.
Your GP may refer you to a specialist for further tests to find out if your breast change is due to cancer.
Biopsy and further tests
A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of the breast tissue. This x-ray can find changes that are too small to be felt during a physical examination. Both breasts will be checked during a mammogram.
During the mammogram, your breast is pressed between two x-ray plates, which spread the breast tissue out so clear pictures can be taken. This can be uncomfortable, but it takes only about 20 seconds.
If the lump that you or your GP could feel does not show up on a mammogram, other tests will need to be done.
An ultrasound is a painless scan that uses soundwaves to create a picture of your breast. A gel is spread on your breast, and a small device called a transducer is moved over the area. This sends out soundwaves that echo when they meet something dense, like an organ or a tumour. A computer creates a picture from these echoes. The scan is painless and takes about 15–20 minutes.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan uses a large magnet and radio waves to create pictures of the breast tissue on a computer. Breast MRI is commonly used to screen people who are at high risk of breast cancer, but it can also be used in people with very dense breast tissue.
Before the scan, you will have an injection of a contrast dye to make any cancerous breast tissue easier to see. You will lie face down on a table with cushioned openings for your breasts with your arms above your head. The table slides into the machine, which is large and shaped like a cylinder. The scan is painless and takes 30–60 minutes.
During a biopsy, a small sample of cells or tissue is removed from your breast. A pathologist examines the sample and checks it for cancer cells under a microscope.
The results of the biopsy and further tests will be outlined in a pathology report, which will include the size and location of the tumour, the grade of the cancer, whether there are cancer cells near the edge (margin) of the removed breast tissue, and whether there are cancer cells in your lymph nodes. The report will help your doctor decide what treatment is best for you.