Testing for breast cancer

How to find out if you do – or don't – have breast cancer

You’ve found a lump and you’re wondering what might happen next. See your doctor as soon as possible. Remember, 80 per cent of lumps are not cancerous. She’ll start by reviewing your medical history and thoroughly examining your breasts. If you’ve already been treated for breast cancer, your doctor may do some of these tests to verify whether or not you are cancer-free.

To confirm whether or not you have cancer, she may send you for some of all of the following:

  • An ultrasound scan to see if the lump contains fluid or is solid. An ultrasound machine sends sound waves through your body to create an image. While you lie on a table, a radiologist or technician will pass a hand-held transducer over your breasts from every side. It should only take about 10 minutes. If there is clear fluid, you may only have a benign cyst. If the lump is solid, you may have some of the cells removed and examined by a pathologist.
  • A needle biopsy, whereby fluid or cells are aspirated with a fine needle from the lump. If fluid is extracted, then it is usually a benign cyst. But if there is blood in the fluid or if the lump is solid, your doctor will send the cells to a pathologist to examine them for cancer.
  • A diagnostic mammogram, which focuses on a specific area and may be ordered to evaluate detected abnormalities.

You should expect your doctors to keep you fully informed throughout the testing period. But remember that results may take days to weeks, depending on where you live or the type of test performed. If the tests come back positive, you’ll be given a choice of treatments . If you’ve already had breast cancer, you may have to go through some of the same treatments again. After treatment, you may have blood tests to check your liver enzymes for the presence of cancer.

For more information, read these user-friendly Canadian guidelines for the care and treatment and cancer

For support during the testing time, call Willow to speak to peer counsellors, who are breast cancer survivors, at 1-888-778-3100 between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. EST. If you have hearing problems, the TTY line is: 1-877-778-2009.

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