Breast cancer is a very scary thought— and unfortunately, it affects far too many women. Fortunately, there are things you can do to be proactive about the health of your breasts. One of which is getting screened regularly. Early detection is key in the treatment of breast cancer. While breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, many women experience no symptoms at all. This is why regular screening is so important. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat successfully.
During your yearly check with your gynecologist, you may have a breast check. Your doctor will ask about your personal and family medical history and you’ll have a physical exam.
Keep in mind that this is the perfect time to speak with your doctor about any unusual changes you may have noticed in your breasts. If you suspect something isn’t right, brushing it aside will only add to your stress level. Remember, you know your health and body best, so don’t be afraid to speak up about something that doesn’t look or feel normal. And if in fact, cancer becomes your new normal, know that we at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers are here for you.
During a clinical breast exam, your healthcare provider will perform a thorough check of your breasts. You may be asked to raise your arms over your head, let them hang by your sides, or press your hands against your hips.
Your healthcare provider will look for differences in size or shape between your breasts. The skin of your breasts is checked for a rash, dimpling, or other abnormal signs. Your nipples may be squeezed to check for fluid.
Using the pads of the fingers to feel for lumps, your health care provider checks your entire breast, underarm, and collarbone area. A lump is generally the size of a pea before anyone can feel it. The exam is done on one side and then the other. Your doctor checks the lymph nodes near the breast to see if they are enlarged.
If a lump has been detected, your doctor will feel its size, shape, and texture. He or she will also check to see if the lump moves easily. Benign (non-cancerous) lumps often feel different from cancerous ones. Lumps that are soft, smooth, round, and movable are likely to be benign. A hard, oddly shaped lump that feels firmly attached within the breast is more likely to be cancer, but further tests need to be done before a diagnosis can be made.
Depending on your age and history, it is likely that your doctor will also order one or more imaging tests, such as a screening mammogram. A mammogram is an x-ray picture of tissues inside the breast. Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. They also can show a cluster of tiny specks of calcium called microcalcifications. Lumps or specks can be from cancer, precancerous cells, or other conditions. If these are present, your doctor may request further tests to find out if abnormal cells are present.
For years, 2D mammography has been the norm for breast cancer screening. However, that’s no longer the only option. Tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammography, is a newer method of mammography that provides a more comprehensive and in-depth view of breast tissue. This is because it takes pictures from many angles rather than a single straightforward X-ray image of the breast like 2D mammography. All women can benefit from 3D mammography, but it is especially beneficial to women with dense breasts. 2D mammograms may not be able to detect some lumps in dense breasts that a 3D mammogram would more than likely pick up. If you have dense breasts or would simply prefer to be examined with an updated method, talk with your physician to see if this option is available.
If the screening mammogram shows any abnormalities in your breast, your doctor may order clearer, more detailed images of that area. A diagnostic mammogram is done to take more pictures of the breast in the area where there is a concern. These additional images can help determine whether more tests are necessary or if it was only dense breast tissue or a common cyst.
If an abnormal area is found during a clinical breast exam or a mammogram, your physician may order other imaging tests such as:
If the physician is still concerned with the abnormality, you will need to have a breast biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of tissue to look for cancer cells and the only way to tell for sure if cancer is present.
Your doctor may refer you to a surgeon or breast disease specialist for a biopsy. The surgeon will remove fluid or tissue from your breast in one of several ways:
A pathologist will check the tissue or fluid removed from your breast for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the pathologist can tell what type of breast cancer it is. The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells that line the breast ducts. Lobular carcinoma is another common type; it begins in the lobules of the breast.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor may order special lab tests on the breast tissue that was removed:
It may take several weeks to get the results of these tests, which we realize will be a stressful time for you. While it can be hard to wait patiently, be assured that going over these test results in depth will help your doctor decide which cancer treatments may be options for you.
We understand that a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. After all, it’s a lot of information to process in a very short period of time and the emotions that follow can feel like a tidal wave. While this emotional turmoil is completely normal, it’s important that you know you’re not alone in your diagnosis — or your emotions.
At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, you will find valuable sources of support as you cope with your breast cancer diagnosis. We have breast cancer specialists across the state of Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Denver, and the Boulder areas, and once the initial shock has worn off, you can count on us to help you find the strength to take control of the situation so you can successfully manage your life during, and after, your cancer journey.