Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Abnormal changes to a single breast or surrounding tissue, such as a new lump in the breast, could indicate cancer, but your doctor can’t confirm a breast cancer diagnosis until she performs several diagnostic tests. Healthcare professionals typically use several tools to gather information about a potential cancer and to make a diagnosis of cancer of the breast.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

MammogramIn particular, the breast exam, mammography and breast biopsy all aid in cancer detection, diagnosis and evaluation. Each of these diagnostic methods examines the breast in a slightly different way:

  • Breast exam: This is often the first step in breast cancer screening. During a breast exam, your doctor will feel your breasts and surrounding areas for abnormalities. If you and/or your doctor discover a lump in the breast, further testing is needed to make a diagnosis.
  • Mammography: One of the tools used to make a diagnosis of cancer of the breast is mammography, an x-ray of the breast (the image is called the “mammogram.”) During a mammography, the radiologist evaluates the density differences of the breast lobes and surrounding fat to determine whether abnormal cells are present. Having a mammogram taken isn’t painful, but it can cause some discomfort. Taking an over-the-counter pain medication before your visit to the doctor can help ease any discomfort you feel as a result of pressure on your breasts.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is the process of extracting and examining breast tissue suspected of being cancerous. Once it is extracted, the tissue is examined for cancerous cells. There are several ways to extract breast tissue. The type of biopsy your doctor performs depends upon the size, location, and nature of the suspicious lump in the breast.

A needle biopsy is the least invasive type of biopsy. The process is relatively quick and may be done in your doctor’s office. It does not require stitches or leave scars. The needle biopsy is used for cysts and tissue samples.

A surgical biopsy may be necessary when a mammogram indicates a breast lump that cannot be felt. Surgery may also be necessary when lesions are near the chest wall or when many small calcifications are found. Depending on the situation, large lumps of tissue may be removed during a surgical biopsy.

Breast Cancer Terminology

During the process of identifying and diagnosing breast cancer, it will be helpful to understand the technical terms used to refer to breast anatomy, cancer and breast cancer treatment. Some common breast cancer terms include:

  • Areola: Pigmented area around the nipple
  • Benign: Non-cancerous
  • Biopsy: Removal and examination of tissue for diagnosis
  • Carcinoma: A cancer originating in the skin or tissues that cover or line internal organs (such as in ducts and lobes of the breast)
  • Chemotherapy: oral or intravenous drug used to hinder cancer cell reproduction
  • Cyst: A round, smooth-edged, fluid-filled non-cancerous lump.
  • Lobe: A cluster of gland cells that produce milk
  • Lymph nodes: Bean-shaped structures scattered along lymphatic vessels
  • Malignancy: Cancerous growth that can invade neighboring tissues, and may metastasize
  • Mammogram: X-ray image of a breast
  • Mastectomy: Partial or entire removal of breast
  • Metastasis: Spread of cancer cells from their source to other areas of the body
  • Oncologist: A physician trained in the treatment and care of cancer patients
  • Radiation therapy/radiotherapy: Treatment that uses high-energy radiation
  • Sarcoma: A cancer derived from fat or connective tissue
  • Tumor: A lump formed by a collection of abnormal cells.


American Cancer Society. (2009). Breast cancer facts and figures 2009-2010. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from

National Cancer Institute. (2010). Mammograms. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from

New York Presbyterian Hospital. (n.d.). Mammography. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from

Ohio State University Medical Center. (n.d.). Mammography. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from breast_health_preventative_care/mammography/Pages/index.aspx