Home  >  Health Encyclopedia  >  Health Encyclopedia Home

Health Encyclopedia


Health Encyclopedia Home

How Does My Doctor Know I Have Breast Cancer?

How Does My Doctor Know I Have Breast Cancer?

If you're having symptoms of breast cancer or have something suspicious that has shown up on a previous test, your doctor will want to follow up. Your doctor is likely to ask you questions about these things:

  • Your medical history

  • Your family history of cancer

  • Any exposure to other risk factors, such as high doses of radiation

In addition to asking questions, your doctor may also perform one or more of the following exams or tests:

  • Clinical breast exam

  • Mammography

  • Ultrasound

Each of these tests is described in detail below.

Clinical breast exam

Feeling your breast can help your doctor figure out the size and texture of any abnormalities. Noncancerous lumps, called benign lumps, often feel different from cancerous ones. First you will remove your clothes from the waist up. Then your doctor will look to see if your breasts have changed in any way, such as in shape or size. As you sit and lie down in different positions, the doctor will feel for any lumps. If your doctor feels a lump, you may need other tests, such as a mammogram or ultrasound.


mammography procedure
Click to enlarge: What happens during a mammography

A mammogram is an X-ray of your breast. It can give the doctor important information about a breast lump. Some facilities use digital mammography, which also uses X-rays, but collects data on the computer, instead of on film. If something looks unusual, more mammograms or other tests may be needed.

Mammograms are quick and easy, though the test itself may be uncomfortable. You undress from the waist up, covering your upper body with a wrap provided by your doctor. Then you stand in front of an X-ray machine. Tell the staff if you have trouble standing so they can help make you more comfortable. A technician, usually a woman, will help position your breast on the X-ray plates. The plates squeeze together to flatten the breast so that the X-ray machine can get a clear picture of the breast tissue. The pressure of the plates may pinch a little, and the positioning of your body can be uncomfortable, but it usually lasts for only a few seconds. Tell the technician how you feel and she will help you find a position that is as comfortable as possible. The whole process lasts about 20 minutes.

You'll be more comfortable if you schedule your mammogram about a week after your period. Your breasts may be tender during menstruation and the time leading up to it, which can make the test more uncomfortable. To make sure that you get the most reliable results, follow these tips:

  • Don't wear deodorant or body powder on the day of your mammogram. It can show up as dark spots on the X-rays and interfere with the radiologist's ability to check the condition of your breasts.

  • Stand perfectly still during the mammogram. If you move, the results might be blurry, and then you'll need to have those pictures taken again.

  • If you've had previous mammograms or biopsies at another facility, bring a list of the dates and locations where these were done. If possible, bring the actual mammograms themselves. It's a good idea to get these from your old facility if you decide to switch to a new one.

  • Choose your mammography facility with care. Your facility should have a prominently posted FDA certificate stating that it meets the required standards of safety and quality. If it doesn't, you have every right to ask to see it. If they don't have this certificate, go somewhere else. Try to have your mammograms at the same facility each year. The longer a facility does your screening, the more familiar they are with your records, and the more likely they are to catch any changes.

You should have the results within 10 days. If there's a problem, you'll hear from the doctor within 5 working days. If you don't hear anything, don't assume that no news is good news. Follow up.


An ultrasound uses sound waves to find out whether a lump is solid or filled with fluid (a cyst). This exam may be used along with mammography. During an ultrasound, your doctor or a technician spreads a thin coating of lubricating jelly over the area to be imaged. A hand-held device called a transducer directs the sound waves through your skin toward specific tissues. As the sound waves are reflected back from the breast tissues, the patterns formed by the waves create a two-dimensional image of the breast on a computer. The test doesn't take long and is painless.

How your doctor uses these test results

These exams may help your doctor decide whether or not you need any more tests or treatment. If any of these test results suggest that cancer may be present, your doctor may need to remove a small amount of breast tissue, usually with a needle. This is called a biopsy. A doctor will suggest doing a biopsy when something suspicious is found in one or more of the tests above.

If you've been seeing your primary care doctor for screening up until this point, your doctor may refer you to a surgeon or another doctor who has experience with breast diseases and biopsies to perform the procedure. A biopsy is the only way to definitively diagnose breast cancer. 


Related Items
Wellness Library
  Solving the Breast Cancer Puzzle
  Reducing Your Risk for Breast Cancer
  Certain Factors Help Predict Invasive Breast Cancer
  Hope on the Horizon for Breast Cancer
  Stay Healthy After Breast Cancer
Content Type 167
  CA 15-3
  CA 27-29
  Immunohistochemical Test for Estrogen and Progesterone Receptors
Cancer Source
  Sex and Cancer: Questions for Your Doctor
  Breast Cancer—Understanding Genetic Testing
  The Soy and Breast Cancer Controversy: Cause for Concern?
  The 'Chemobrain' Phenomenon in Breast Cancer
  MRIs for Breast Cancer Screening—Who Needs Them?
  Hormonal Therapy: Managing Side Effects in Women
  If You Are Having Hormonal Therapy
  What Is Breast Cancer?
  What to Know About Your Treatment Choices for Breast Cancer
  Ductal Carcinoma
  Statistics About Breast Cancer
  Can I Get Checked for Breast Cancer Before I Have Symptoms?
  What Can I Do if I Am at Risk for Breast Cancer?
  What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
  Tests That Help Evaluate the Traits of Your Breast Cancer
  Understanding Your Grade and Stage of Breast Cancer
  What to Know About Surgery for Breast Cancer
  Breast Cancer: What Happens After Reconstructive Surgery
  Goal of Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer
  Do What You Can to Ease Side Effects of Treatment and Symptoms for Breast Cancer
  Finding Out You Have Breast Cancer
  What to Know About Combination Therapy for Breast Cancer
  How You Get Radiation for Breast Cancer
  What You Need to Know About Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer
  Tips for Feeling Your Best During Treatment for Breast Cancer
  Taking Care of Your Incision After Breast Surgery
  How Your Doctor Uses Biopsies to Make Your Diagnosis of Breast Cancer
  Understanding Your Type of Breast Cancer
  What to Know About Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC)
  Can I Survive Breast Cancer? What Is My Prognosis?
  Am I at Risk for Breast Cancer?
  Myths About What Causes Breast Cancer
  Questions to Ask About Treatment for Breast Cancer
  What to Expect After Surgery for Breast Cancer
  What Happens During Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer
  What to Expect After Radiation Treatment for Breast Cancer
  What Happens During Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer
  Making the Decision to Have Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer
  What Happens During Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer
  Ovarian Ablation as Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer
  What to Expect After Taking Hormone Therapy Drugs for Breast Cancer
  What to Know About Targeted Therapy for Breast Cancer
  What Happens During Targeted Therapy for Breast Cancer
  Making the Decision to Have Breast Reconstruction After a Mastectomy for Breast Cancer
  When Breast Cancer Spreads to the Bones
  Exercising After Breast Cancer: Moving Toward Health
  Aromatase Inhibitors for Breast Cancer
Cancer FAQs
  Breast Cancer FAQ
NCI Patient Summary
  Breast Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy (PDQ®)
  Breast Cancer Quiz
  Breast Cancer Risk Assessment
Adult Diseases and Conditions
  Breast Cancer Prevention Trial (BCPT)
  Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer Treatment
  About Clinical Trials: Information from the National Cancer Institute
  How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
  General Information About Breast Cancer
  Other Treatments for Breast Cancer
  National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP)
  Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer Treatment
  Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
  Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
  Stages of Breast Cancer
  Study of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene (STAR)
  Breast Cancer Statistics
  About Taxol
  Breast Health: Three-Step Plan for Preventive Care
  Treatments for Breast Cancer
  Hereditary Breast Ovarian Cancer Syndrome (BRCA1/BRCA2)
  Genetics of Breast Cancer
  Breast Cancer Overview
  Should You Consider Preventive Drugs for Breast Cancer?
  Should You Be Tested for the Breast Cancer Gene?
Test and Procedures
  Breast Biopsy