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What is Involved in Making a Breast Cancer Diagnosis?

Article Details
  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Breast cancer is a form of malignant infection that attacks the cells in the breasts. It can afflict both men and women, but is far more common in women. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the odds for recovery. Understanding how a breast cancer diagnosis proceeds can help prepare a person for the many steps of the process.

Early stage breast cancer diagnosis is not usually found through obvious symptoms. People with a family history of breast cancer may have regular screenings to allow the earliest possible chance of breast cancer diagnosis. Possible symptoms, such as a lump on the breast, may first be identified during routine physicals that include mammograms. Sometimes lumps are so small that patients do not have any idea of their presence until receiving an exam.

Some symptoms that can lead to early breast cancer diagnosis may include a change in the shape of the breast or nipple, appearance of lumps or unusual skin changes around the breast. Discharge from the nipple may sometimes occur, and skin on the breast or nipple may appear thickened or scaly. Medical experts recommend seeing a doctor promptly if any of these symptoms appear.

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Breast cancer diagnosis often begins with a mammogram. This is an X-ray taken of the breasts that can show calcium deposits and lumps in the area before the lump is even noticeable in a clinical exam. Other early imaging tests may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computer tomography (CT) scans. All of these tests help show detailed information on the tissue composition of the breasts, which in turn can lead to a breast cancer diagnosis.

If a lump or unusual formation is found, the next step in diagnosis may involve taking a small sample of the tissue for testing in a procedure known as a biopsy. This may be a minor or major medical procedure, depending on the type of biopsy performed. Surgeons may choose to remove a sample of fluid or cells with a needle, a sample of skin, a portion of the lump or abnormality, or the entire lump. Some of these surgeries may be done on an outpatient basis, but most require some level of sedation or anesthesia. Cancer cells can then be detected through pathological examination, and a diagnosis of breast cancer may be made.

After an initial diagnosis of breast cancer, additional tests may be done to narrow down treatment options and identify the current stage of the disease. The presence of certain hormones or proteins may prohibit or indicate certain forms of treatment; blood and tissue samples are often examined to help create a treatment plan. Staging may be diagnosed through bone and body scans that check to see if there are secondary infections in other parts of the body.

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