Imaging Tests to Find Out if Breast Cancer Has Spread

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, you might need more tests if your doctor thinks the cancer might have spread based on your symptoms, the results of your physical exam, or the size of your tumor. Not all women with breast cancer need these tests. Your doctor will talk with you about which (if any) of these tests you will need.

Chest x-rayThis test may be done to see if the cancer has spread to your lungs.

CT scan (computed tomography): A CT scan uses x-rays taken from different angles, which are combined by a computer to make detailed pictures of the inside of your body. This test is most often used to look at the chest and/or belly (abdomen) to see if breast cancer has spread to other organs. It can also be used to guide a biopsy needle into an area of concern.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): This test makes detailed pictures using radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. This test can be used to look at the breasts or other parts of the body. MRIs can be more uncomfortable than CT scans because they take longer, and you often need to lie in a narrow tube while the test is done.

Ultrasound: For an ultrasound, a wand that gives off sound waves is moved over the skin to take pictures of the inside of the body. A gel is often put on your skin first.

PET scan (positron emission tomography): For this test, a form of radioactive sugar (called FDG) is put into a vein and travels throughout the body. Cancer cells absorb high amounts of this sugar. A special camera then takes pictures that show the areas where the sugar collected throughout the body. A PET scan is often combined with a CT scan (known as a PET/CT scan).

Bone scan: This test can help show if the cancer has spread to your bones. It is similar to a PET scan, but it uses a different radioactive substance that settles in areas of change in the bones. It can show all of the bones of your body at the same time and can find small areas of cancer spread not seen on plain x-rays.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Breast Cancer. Version 2.2019. Accessed at on August 26, 2019.

Niravath P, Osborne CK. Chapter 31: Evaluation of Patients for Metastasis Prior to Primary Therapy. In: Harris JR, Lippman ME, Morrow M, Osborne CK, eds. Diseases of the Breast. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014.

Last Medical Review: October 3, 2019 Last Revised: October 3, 2019

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