Diagnosing Breast Cancer

The news of an abnormal mammogram or breast cancer diagnosis is both stressful and challenging. At Beaumont, an expedited diagnosis program quickly provides answers and coordinates care for benign and malignant breast diseases.

One call sets coordinated care in motion, from evaluation, diagnosis and treatment to follow-up. Comprehensive breast care components, which may require three or more appointments elsewhere, are usually accomplished in one visit to Beaumont, typically within days of the initial call.

Beaumont's facilities feature the most advanced diagnostic imaging (mammography) techniques and radiology procedures. Coordinating with the Multidisciplinary Breast Oncology Clinics, breast radiologists quickly diagnose patients using digital mammography, CT, MRI and PET scan imaging. A study of 840 patients at Beaumont proved that digital mammography provided better sensitivity and diagnosis for pre- or perimenopausal women younger than age 50. Such groundbreaking work explains why Beaumont is one of the busiest hospitals in Michigan for diagnostic radiology.

Beaumont 1st in SE Michigan to Offer Molecular Imaging to Detect Breast Cancer

Beaumont Hospital, Troy is the first hospital in Southeast Michigan to use a new breast cancer imaging tool to help physicians diagnose early-stage breast cancer. The new technology, called Breast-Specific Gamma Imaging, also known as Molecular Breast Imaging, or BSGI/MBI, may be used with selected patients as a secondary procedure to mammography, ultrasound and MRI.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

It is important to remember that a lump or other changes in the breast, or an abnormal area on a mammogram, may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious problems.

Physical exam

To determine the cause of any signs or symptoms, your physician will perform a careful physical exam that includes a personal and family medical history as well as determining current overall health status. In addition, an examination may include the following:

  • palpation - carefully feeling the lump and the tissue around it - its size, its texture, and whether it moves easily. Benign lumps often feel different from cancerous ones.
  • nipple discharge examination - fluid may be collected from spontaneous nipple discharge and then sent to the lab to look for cancer cells. Most nipple secretions are not cancer, as an injury, infection, or benign tumor may cause discharge.
  • For women who are at high risk for breast cancer, a procedure called ductal lavage may be used. Ductal lavage is a procedure that collects cells from inside the milk ductal system - the location where most breast cancers begin.

Imaging test

In addition to a physical examination by your physician, an imaging test will be performed. Imaging tests may include one or more of the following:

  • diagnostic mammography - a diagnostic mammogram is an x-ray of the breast used to diagnose unusual breast changes, such as a lump, pain, nipple thickening or discharge, or a change in breast size or shape. A diagnostic mammogram is also used to evaluate abnormalities detected on a screening mammogram. It is a basic medical tool and is appropriate in the workup of breast changes, regardless of a woman's age.
  • digital mammography (Also called full-field digital mammography, or FFDM)  - a type of mammography in which the images are electronically captured and stored on a computer, rather than x-ray film. The images are viewed on a computer screen. Images can be changed, such as the degree of magnification, brightness or contrast, to help visualization. They can also be transmitted electronically. While this procedure currently costs more than standard mammography, studies are being done to see which type of mammography will be of more benefit to women for the long term. Some studies have found FFDM to be more accurate in finding cancers in women younger than 50.  Also, it has been found that women undergoing digital mammography do not have to return for additional studies as often as with standard mammography because the digital images have fewer questionable spots needing more investigation. However, not all hospitals and mammography facilities have digital equipment available.
  • ultrasonography - uses high-frequency sound waves, not heard by humans. The sound waves enter the breast and bounce back. The pattern of their echoes produces a picture called a sonogram, which is displayed on a screen. This exam is often used along with mammography.
  • scintimammography -  a specialized radiology procedure used to assess the breasts when other examinations have been inconclusive. Scintimammography, or breast scan, is a type of nuclear radiology procedure. This means that a tiny amount of a radioactive substance is used during the procedure to assist in the examination of the breasts. The radioactive substance, called a radionuclide (radiopharmaceutical or radioactive tracer), is absorbed by certain types of body tissues.
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
    • In early 2007, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommended new guidelines which include screening MRI with mammography for certain high-risk women. According to the ACS, contrast-enhanced MRI of the breasts has been shown to have a high sensitivity for detecting breast cancer in women both with or without symptoms.
    • MRI scans along with annual mammography should be considered for the following:
    • It is recommended that high-risk women begin screening mammography and screening MRI at the age of 30, unless they and their physicians agree that a different age is more appropriate.

Based on these exams, your physician may decide that no further tests are needed and no treatment is necessary. In such cases, your physician may want to check you regularly to watch for any changes.

Biopsy

Often, however, the physician must remove fluid or tissue from the breast to be sent to the lab to look for cancer cells. The procedure, called biopsy, may be performed using a needle to acquire a tissue sample or a surgical method.