The most common types of breast cancer testing are the mammogram and clinical breast exam. If these tests detect lumps or other abnormalities in the breast, more intensive tests, including biopsy, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be performed. For patients at a high risk for getting breast cancer due to heredity, tests are performed more frequently as a preventative measure.
A mammogram helps with breast cancer testing by making an x-ray of the breasts. It can find both cancerous tumors and abnormal cells that may be precancerous. The density of the breast tissue can have a significant effect on test results. It can be more difficult for a radiologist to detect growths or abnormalities in the denser breast tissue of young patients, while it tends to be easier to read the results of patients over 50 years of age.
The clinical breast exam can also be used for regular personal breast cancer testing. It involves careful physical examination of the breasts and underarms for abnormalities and lumps. These types of exams are most effective when the woman is familiar with her breasts and thus aware of which lumps are normal.
If a lump or abnormality is discovered as a result of the mammogram or clinical breast exam, a doctor may perform an ultrasound or an MRI to conduct further research. Using waves of high-energy sound to make images, the ultrasound can create a more detailed picture of the tissue of the breasts and surrounding areas than an x-ray. An MRI also creates detailed images, but with radio waves, a magnet, and an attached computer viewing station. MRIs can be used to screen women who are at a high risk of getting the disease due to heredity, to help better plan for surgery for existing cancer, or to provide more detail in order to make a diagnosis.
Another form of advanced breast cancer testing is the biopsy. This procedure involves removing cells from the breast that are believed to be cancerous for testing. A laboratory can not only detect cancer in the cells, but determine the presence of hormone receptors and how aggressive the cells are.
There are typically several more tests conducted once breast cancer has been diagnosed. These can include a mammogram of the other breast, blood tests, a bone scan, and an x-ray of the chest. There may also be a computerized tomography (CT) scan and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. The number of tests performed depends on the level of the cancer and what information has already been determined from previous tests.