Imaging Tests to Look for Breast Cancer Spread

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, you might need more imaging tests. Your doctor will talk with you about which of these tests you may need.

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests might be done for a number of reasons including:

  • To look at suspicious areas that might be cancer
  • To learn how far cancer might have spread
  • To help determine if treatment is working
  • To look for possible signs of cancer coming back after treatment

Chest x-ray

A chest x-ray may be done to see if the cancer has spread to your lungs.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

CT scan uses x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking 1 or 2 pictures, like a regular x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures and a computer then combines them to show a slice of the part of your body being studied. 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, like the lungs or liver.

CT-guided needle biopsy: If a suspected area of cancer is deep within your body, a CT scan might be used to guide a biopsy needle into this area to get a tissue sample to check for cancer.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Like CT scans, MRI scans show detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use 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, such as the brain or spinal cord to look for possible cancer spread.

Ultrasound

Ultrasound (ultrasonography) uses sound waves to create an image on a video screen. A small microphone-like instrument called a transducer that gives off sound waves is moved over the skin surface and picks up the echoes as they bounce off tissues. A computer turns these echoes into an image on the screen. An ultrasound can be done over a breast or in the underarm area, or even the liver.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

For a PET scan, a slightly radioactive form of sugar (known as FDG) is injected into the blood and collects mainly in cancer cells.

PET/CT scan: Often a PET scan is combined with a CT scan using a special machine that can do both at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with a more detailed picture on the CT scan.

Bone scan

A bone scan can help show if the cancer has spread to your bones. A small amount of low-level radioactive material is injected into the blood and collects mainly in abnormal areas of bone. 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-ray.

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.

Joe BN. Clinical features, diagnosis, and staging of newly diagnosed breast cancer. In Vora SR, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, Mass.: UpToDate, 2021. https://www.uptodate.com. Last updated May 12, 2021. Accessed August 31, 2021.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Breast Cancer. Version 7.2021. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/breast.pdf on August 31, 2021.

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.

References

Joe BN. Clinical features, diagnosis, and staging of newly diagnosed breast cancer. In Vora SR, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, Mass.: UpToDate, 2021. https://www.uptodate.com. Last updated May 12, 2021. Accessed August 31, 2021.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Breast Cancer. Version 7.2021. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/breast.pdf on August 31, 2021.

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 Revised: November 8, 2021

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