Diagnosing breast cancer

Women are usually diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine breast cancer screening, or after detecting certain signs and symptoms and seeing their doctor about them.

If a woman detects any of the breast cancer signs and symptoms described above, she should speak to her doctor immediately. The doctor, often a primary care physician (general practitioner, GP) initially, will carry out a physical exam, and then refer the patient to a specialist if he/she thinks further assessment is needed.

Below are examples of diagnostic tests and procedures for breast cancer:

Breast exam – the physician will check both the patient’s breasts, looking out for lumps and other possible abnormalities, such as inverted nipples, nipple discharge, or change in breast shape. The patient will be asked to sit/stand with her arms in different positions, such as above her head and by her sides.

X-ray (mammogram) – commonly used for breast cancer screening. If anything unusual is found, the doctor may order a diagnostic mammogram.

Breast cancer screening has become a controversial subject over the last few years. Experts, professional bodies, and patient groups cannot currently agree on when mammography screening should start and how often it should occur. Some say routine screening should start when the woman is 40 years old, others insist on 50 as the best age, and a few believe that only high-risk groups should have routine screening.

In July, 2012, The American Medical Association said that women should be eligible for screening mammography from the age of 40, and it should be covered by insurance.

In a Special Report in The Lancet (October 30th, 2012 issue), a panel of experts explained that breast cancer screening does reduce the risk of death from the disease. However, they added that it also creates more cases of false-positive results, where women end up having unnecessary biopsies and harmless tumors are surgically removed.

Another study, carried out by scientists at the The Dartmouth Institute for Healthy Policy & Clinical Practice in Lebanon, N.H., and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (November 2012 issue), found that mammograms do not reduce breast cancer death rates.

A team from the University of Copenhagen reported that women who have false-positive mammogram outcomes may suffer long-lasting stress and anxiety, in some cases this can last up to three years. They published their findings in Annals of Family Medicine (March 2013 issue).

Researchers from the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan, found that breast cancer mortality was higher among older women whose time-lapses between their last mammogram and their breast cancer diagnosis were longer. They presented their findings at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2013.

Team leader, Michael S. Simon, M.D., M.P.H., said “We found that for women age 75 and older, a longer time interval between the last mammogram and the date of breast cancer diagnosis was associated with a greater chance for dying from breast cancer.”

2D combined with 3D mammograms – 3D mammograms, when used in collaboration with regular 2D mammograms were found to reduce the incidence of false positives, researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, Australia, reported in The Lancet Oncology.

The researchers screened 7,292 adult females, average age 58 years. Their initial screening was done using 2D mammograms, and then they underwent a combination of 2D and 3D mammograms.

Professor Nehmat Houssami and team found 59 cancers in 57 patients. 66% of the cancers were detected in both 2D and combined 2D/3D screenings. However, 33% of them were only detected using the 2D plus 3D combination.

The team also found that 2D plus 3D combination screenings were linked to a much lower number of false positives. When using just 2D screenings there were 141 false positives, compared to 73 using the 2D plus 3D combination.

Prof. Houssami said “Although controversial, mammography screening is the only population-level early detection strategy that has been shown to reduce breast cancer mortality in randomized trials. Irrespective of which side of the mammography screening debate one supports, efforts should be made to investigate methods that enhance the quality of, and hence potential benefit from, mammography screening.

We have shown that integrated 2D and 3D mammography in population breast-cancer screening increases detection of breast cancer and can reduce false-positive recalls depending on the recall strategy. Our results do not warrant an immediate change to breast-screening practice, instead, they show the urgent need for randomised controlled trials of integrated 2D and 3D versus 2D mammography.”

Breast ultrasound – this type of scan may help doctors decide whether a lump or abnormality is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.

Biopsy – a sample of tissue from an apparent abnormality, such as a lump, is surgically removed and sent to the lab for analysis. It the cells are found to be cancerous, the lab will also determine what type of breast cancer it is, and the grade of cancer (aggressiveness). Scientists from the Technical University of Munich found that for an accurate diagnosis, multiple tumor sites need to be taken.

Breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan – a dye is injected into the patient. This type of scan helps the doctor determine the extent of the cancer. Researchers from the University of California in San Francisco found that MRI provides a useful indication of a breast tumor’s response to pre-surgical chemotherapy much earlier than possible through clinical examination.
Staging describes the extent of the cancer in the patient’s body and is based on whether it is invasive or non-invasive, how large the tumor is, whether lymph nodes are involved and how many, and whether it has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).

A cancer’s stage is a crucial factor in deciding what treatment options to recommend, and in determining the patient’s prognosis.

Staging is done after cancer is diagnosed. To do the staging, the doctor may order several different tests, including blood tests, a mammogram, a chest X-ray, a bone scan, a CT scan, or a PET scan.