Breast Cancer Tests & Diagnosis


During the early stages of breast cancer there are no obvious signs or symptoms.

Women, especially those in the over 40 age bracket are encouraged to attend breast screening programs which are used to test & detect if breast cancer is present.

Treatment is most effective when breast cancer is found during the early stages.

As a general rule, the earlier the breast cancer diagnosis, the better the breast cancer prognosis.

Many women survive breast cancer and live long healthy lives following an early breast cancer diagnosis.

There are 3 main screening tests.

Each test has its advantages and disadvantages.

Breast Self Examination

Women can check their own breasts for lumps and changes in the shape or size of their breasts.

Under the arm (the armpit) should also be checked.

Self examinations are generally painless and convenient.

However, a breast self examination may not detect early stage breast cancer.

Often there are no visible or noticeable signs and symptoms in early stage breast cancer.

Clinical Breast Examination

A clinical breast examination is a test performed by an experienced medical professional, usually a doctor or nurse who check for lumps and changes in the size or shape of the breast. Under the arms are also checked as tumors (areas of cancer cells) can develop there near the lymph nodes.

Although the experienced physician may be more likely to find lumps in the breast than a self examination would, clinical breast examinations cannot detect early stage breast cancer if there are breast cancer cells but no obvious lumps.

A breast cancer diagnosis should made by a qualified physician using one or more of the following tests.


Mammograms are the most effective tests used for detecting & diagnosing early breast cancer.

Mammograms take a sequence of X-ray images of the breast. Using a specially designed X-ray machine, a breast is placed on a plate and a plate above presses down whilst the X-ray is taken.

This test is repeated for each breast and the plates are also aligned vertically so that side X-rays of the breast can be taken.

Discomfort may be felt during a mammogram as there is some pressure when the plates are between the breast.

Doctors trained in X-ray use (radiologists) use the X-rays to look for the early signs of breast cancer for diagnosis. The results may be given on the day or typically within 30 days of the mammogram.

If the results from a mammogram show abnormalities in the breast other tests will be needed to confirm the presence of breast cancer.

In many cases an abnormal mammogram does not mean the person has breast cancer.

However, an abnormal mammogram means the person will most likely be referred to a specialist who can perform additional tests.

Due to the higher risk of breast cancer in women over 50 years of age, mammograms should be used regularly, every one or two years, to screen for breast cancer in women over 40 years.

Additional tests include:

Diagnostic mammogram – diagnostic mammograms provide more detail than a standard mammogram. A diagnostic mammogram is usually given if the results of a mammogram show a problem in the breast such as an area of abnormal tissue or a lump. As they provide more accurate information, these types of mammogram are more likely to be used to diagnose breast cancer.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – MRI is a body scan which creates detailed images inside the breast using a magnet linked to a computer.

Ultrasound – breast ultrasound uses a machine with ultrasonic technology to create an image of the breast using sound waves. Detailed images of areas inside the breast are called sonograms.

Biopsy – fluid or tissue samples are removed from the breast and studied under the microscope.

There are different types of biopsies including:

  • core biopsy
  • open biopsy
  • fine-needle aspiration biopsy

A biopsy is a test which can be used to confirm diagnosis. A biopsy can also be using when grading breast cancer.