Diagnosing Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can strike anyone, young or old, male or female, from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. Former First Lady Betty Ford, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, singer Olivia Newton-John and actor Richard Roundtree are all breast cancer survivors. Their breast cancer experiences began when the disease was diagnosed because a symptom or screening test suggested breast cancer.

The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump or mass. Other common symptoms include breast swelling, skin irritation, the nipple turning inward, nipple discharge (not breast milk), and breast or nipple pain. These signs may be noticed during a breast self-exam, routine clinical breast exam or screening mammogram. If a suspicious-looking area is detected, additional testing will be used to either confirm a breast cancer diagnosis or identify a benign condition.

Three tests used to diagnose breast conditions are diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic mammogram, which generates X-ray pictures, focuses on a specific area of the breast and takes more detailed pictures of the areas that look abnormal. An ultrasound, which uses sound waves, can help doctors determine if an abnormality is a benign fluid-filled cyst or a potentially cancerous solid mass. MRI, which uses radio waves and strong magnets, is sometimes used to look for tumors that did not appear on a mammogram.

Imaging tests can help locate a breast mass, but they cannot confirm a breast cancer diagnosis. This is done during a biopsy to remove cells or tissue samples for laboratory testing. There are three main types of biopsies:

  • Fine needle aspiration biopsy involves inserting a very thin needle into the suspicious area to withdraw cells. Ultrasound may be used to guide the needle if the lump cannot be easily located.
  • Core needle biopsy uses a slightly larger needle to remove three to five small cylinders of tissue from the breast abnormality. Larger core biopsies can be performed using suction to remove tissue samples.
  • Surgery may be recommended to remove all or part of a lump for examination. During an incisional biopsy, a sample is removed from the abnormal area. An excisional biopsy involves removing the entire mass as well as a surrounding margin of normal tissue.

If cancer cells are found after a biopsy, test results can determine the cancer type and whether it is invasive (likely to spread) or in situ (localized). Invasive cancers are assigned a grade based on how closely the sample resembles normal tissue and the likelihood the cancer will grow and spread. An estrogen and progesterone receptor test can determine if hormone therapy may help stop the cancer from growing. A human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 test can measure a growth factor protein that may cause cancer cells to spread more aggressively.

For more information about breast cancer, talk with your doctor or visit the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org.

For a physician referral, call Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center at (561) 625-5070.

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