Non-Cancerous Breast Conditions

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Diagnosing non-cancerous breast changes

If your symptoms or mammogram results suggest that you may have a problem with your breast, your doctor will take more steps to find out what it is. It’s important to know exactly what the problem is so that the best treatment can be chosen, if needed.

Medical history and physical exam

The first steps are health questions (medical history) and a physical exam. Answering questions about your and your family’s past health will give your doctor information about your risk factors for breast cancer and benign breast conditions. The doctor will also ask about any symptoms you are having, including how long you have had them.

Next, the doctor will do a thorough breast exam to find any lumps and feel their texture, size, and relationship to the skin and chest muscles. Any changes in the nipples or the skin of the breasts will be noted. The lymph nodes under the armpit and above the collarbones may be felt because swelling or firmness of these lymph nodes might be a sign of spread of breast cancer. (Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped collections of immune system cells to which breast cancers often spread first.)

Along with questions about your health and a physical exam, imaging tests and a breast biopsy may be done.

Imaging tests

Several types of imaging tests may be used to look for or help evaluate breast diseases. Some of these include:

  • Mammograms: x-rays of the breasts
  • Breast ultrasound: a test that uses sound waves to look at the inside of the breasts
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the breast: a test that uses radio waves and strong magnets to get detailed images of the inside of the breasts
  • Ductogram: a very thin plastic tube is put into the opening of the duct that has discharge coming from it, and a small amount of contrast dye is injected to outline the shape of the duct on an x-ray

For more information about these and other imaging tests, see our document Mammograms and Other Breast Imaging Tests.

Other procedures

Nipple discharge exam (nipple smear)

If fluid is coming from your nipple, some of the fluid may be collected and looked at under a microscope for signs of infection or cancer cells. This is not usually a good way to find cancer, because cancer can be present even if no cancer cells are found in the fluid.

Biopsy

During a biopsy the doctor removes a sample of the abnormal area to be looked at under a microscope. A biopsy may be done when mammograms, other imaging tests, or a physical exam finds a breast change that may be cancer. A biopsy is the only way to tell if cancer is really present.

There are several types of biopsies, and each type has its own pros and cons. Some use a needle, while others require surgery. See For Women Facing a Breast Biopsy for details on the different types of breast biopsy and what the procedure is like.


Last Medical Review: 03/16/2015
Last Revised: 03/16/2015