You may be diagnosed with breast cancer after routine breast screening, or you may have symptoms that you've seen your GP about.
See a GP as soon as possible if you notice any symptoms of breast cancer, such as an unusual lump in your breast or any change in the appearance, feel or shape of your breasts.
The GP will examine you. If they think your symptoms need further assessment, they'll refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic.
If you have suspected breast cancer, either because of your symptoms or because a mammogram has shown an abnormality, you'll be referred to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests.
Mammogram and breast ultrasound
If you have symptoms and have been referred to a specialist breast unit by a GP, you'll probably be invited to have a mammogram, which is an X-ray of your breasts. You may also need an ultrasound scan.
If cancer was detected through the NHS Breast Screening Programme, you may need another mammogram or ultrasound scan.
Your doctor may suggest that you only have a breast ultrasound scan if you're under the age of 35. This is because younger women have denser breasts, which means a mammogram is not as effective as ultrasound in detecting cancer.
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breasts, showing any lumps or abnormalities.
Your breast specialist may also suggest a breast ultrasound if they need to know whether a lump in your breast is solid or contains liquid.
Find out more about breast screening.
A biopsy is where a sample of cells is taken from your breast and tested to see if it's cancerous.
You may also need a scan and a needle test on lymph nodes in your armpit (axilla) to see whether these are also affected.
Biopsies can be taken in different ways, and the type you have will depend on what your doctor knows about your condition.
Needle aspiration may be used to test a sample of your breast cells for cancer or drain a small fluid-filled lump (benign cyst).
Your doctor will use a small needle to extract a sample of cells, without removing any tissue.
Needle biopsy is the most common type of biopsy. A sample of tissue is taken from a lump in your breast using a large needle.
You may have a local anaesthetic, which means you'll be awake during the procedure, but your breast will be numb.
Your doctor may suggest that you have a guided needle biopsy, usually guided by ultrasound or X-ray, or sometimes MRI, to obtain a more precise and reliable diagnosis of cancer.
This can also distinguish it from any non-invasive change, particularly ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
Vacuum-assisted biopsy, also known as mammotome biopsy, is another type of biopsy.
During the procedure, a needle is attached to a gentle suction tube, which helps to obtain the sample and clear any bleeding from the area.
Want to know more?
- Breast Cancer Now: What to expect at a breast clinic appointment
- Cancer Research UK: diagnosing breast cancer
- Macmillan Cancer Support: how breast cancer in women is diagnosed
If a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed, more tests will be needed to determine the stage and grade of the cancer, and the best method of treatment.
Scans and X-rays
A CT scan, chest X-ray and liver ultrasound scan may be needed to check whether the cancer has spread.
An MRI scan of the breast may be needed to clarify the results or assess the extent of the condition within the breast.
If your doctor thinks the cancer could have spread to your bones, you may need a bone scan.
Before having a bone scan, a substance containing a small amount of radiation known as an isotope will be injected into a vein in your arm.
This will be absorbed into your bone if it's been affected by cancer. The affected areas of bone will show up as highlighted areas on the bone scan.
Tests to determine specific types of treatment
You'll also need tests that show whether the cancer will respond to specific types of treatment.
The results of these tests can give your doctors a more complete picture of the type of cancer you have and how to treat it.
In some cases, breast cancer cells can be stimulated to grow by hormones that occur naturally in your body, such as oestrogen and progesterone.
If this is the case, the cancer may be treated by stopping the effects of the hormones or by lowering the level of these hormones in your body. This is known as hormone therapy.
During a hormone receptor test, a sample of cancer cells will be taken from your breast and tested to see if they respond to either oestrogen or progesterone.
If the hormone is able to attach to the cancer cells using a hormone receptor, they're known as hormone-receptor positive.
While hormones can encourage the growth of some types of breast cancer, other types are stimulated by a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).
These types of cancers can be diagnosed using a HER2 test and are treated with medicine that blocks the effects of HER2. This is known as targeted therapy.
Want to know more?
When breast cancer is diagnosed, your doctors will give it a stage. The stage describes the size of the cancer and how far it has spread, and is used to predict the outlook.
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is sometimes described as stage 0. Other stages of breast cancer describe invasive breast cancer and include:
- stage 1 – the tumour measures less than 2cm and the lymph nodes in the armpit are not affected. There are no signs that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body
- stage 2 – the tumour measures 2 to 5cm, the lymph nodes in the armpit are affected, or both. There are no signs that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body
- stage 3 – the tumour measures 2 to 5cm and may be attached to structures in the breast, such as skin or surrounding tissues, and the lymph nodes in the armpit are affected. There are no signs that the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body
- stage 4 – the tumour is of any size and the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (metastasis)
This is a simplified guide. Each stage is divided into further categories: A, B and C. If you're not sure what stage you have, talk to your doctor.
TNM staging system
The TNM staging system may also be used to describe breast cancer, as it can provide accurate information about the diagnosis:
- T – the size of the tumour
- N – whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
- M – whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
Grades of breast cancer
The grade describes the appearance of the cancer cells.
- low grade (G1) – the cells, although abnormal, appear to be growing slowly
- medium grade (G2) – the cells look more abnormal than low-grade cells
- high grade (G3) – the cells look even more abnormal and are more likely to grow quickly