Breast Cancer Early Detection

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Breast ultrasound

Ultrasound, also known as sonography, is an imaging method using sound waves to look inside a part of the body. For this test, a small, microphone-like instrument called a transducer is placed on the skin (which is often first lubricated with ultrasound gel). It emits sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off body tissues. The echoes are converted by a computer into a black and white image on a computer screen. This test is painless and does not expose you to radiation.

Breast ultrasound is sometimes used to evaluate breast problems that are found during a screening or diagnostic mammogram or on physical exam. Breast ultrasound is not routinely used for screening. Some studies have suggested that ultrasound may be a helpful addition to mammography when screening women with dense breast tissue (which is hard to evaluate with a mammogram), but the use of ultrasound instead of mammograms for breast cancer screening is not recommended.

Ultrasound is useful for evaluating some breast masses and is the only way to tell if a suspicious area is a cyst (fluid-filled sac) without placing a needle into it to aspirate (draw out) fluid. Cysts cannot accurately be diagnosed by physical exam alone. Breast ultrasound may also be used to help doctors guide a biopsy needle into some breast lesions.

Ultrasound has become a valuable tool to use along with mammograms because it is widely available, non-invasive, and less expensive than other options. However, the effectiveness of an ultrasound test depends on the operator’s level of skill and experience. Although ultrasound is less sensitive than MRI (that is, it detects fewer tumors), it has the advantage of being more available and less expensive.

Last Medical Review: 09/17/2013
Last Revised: 01/28/2014