Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine.
Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

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Symptoms of Breast Cancer
One or more of the following physical symptoms may indicate breast cancer:

  • A lump or thickening in the tissue of the breast or the underarm
  • Change in the size or shape of a breast
  • Dimpling of the skin over the breast
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Red, peeling, scaling or flaking skin on or around the breast

Keep in mind that these symptoms can also indicate conditions other than breast cancer. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, especially if you find a lump, contact your physician as soon as possible so that the cause can be diagnosed and treated promptly.

Diagnostic Tests for Breast Cancer
The American Cancer Society recommends regular breast self exams starting in your 20s and yearly mammograms starting at age 40 to screen for breast cancer.

If breast cancer is suspected, one or more of the following tests may be recommended:

  • Breast Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to produce images from inside the breast with more detail than mammograms. An ultrasound can help determine whether an abnormality is likely to be a fluid-filled cyst or a solid mass, which may be either benign or cancerous. Breast ultrasound is also used to guide certain types of biopsies.
  • Biopsy: Your doctor removes a sample of the suspicious breast cells so they can be examined by a pathologist. If cancerous cells are found, the biopsy can also determine the type and the aggressiveness (grade) of the cancer. The different types of breast biopsy are:
    • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy: The radiologist uses a thin needle to remove cells or fluid from a breast lump.
    • Core biopsy: A radiologist uses a wider needle to remove a larger sample of breast tissue.
    • Skin biopsy: If there are skin changes on your breast, a physician may take a small sample of skin.
    • Surgical biopsy: A surgeon removes either a part of the lump (incisional biopsy) or the entire abnormal area (excisional biopsy).
  • Breast MRI: If a biopsy confirms cancer, a breast MRI may be ordered to give your doctor an idea of the extent of the cancer and to look for evidence of cancer in the other breast.

Staging Breast Cancer
If breast cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the extent, or stage, of the disease so that your doctor can devise a course of treatment.

Staging the cancer may involve additional tests, such as blood analysis, chest X-ray, breast MRI, bone scan, CT scan, and/or positron emission tomography (PET) scan. There are five possible outcomes of the staging process:

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are present that are not invasive cancer.
  • Stage I: Tumor is 2 cm (3/4 of an inch) or less across.
  • Stage II: Tumor is more than 2 cm but not more than 5 cm (2 inches) across.
  • Stage III: Tumor is more than 5 cm across.
  • Stage IV: Tumor of any size growing into the chest wall or skin; this includes inflammatory breast cancer.

Learn more about breast cancer:

For more information about breast cancer treatment at the Methodist Cancer Center or to make an appointment, call us at 713-790-2700.