Tests after a diagnosis of breast cancer

woman having MRI scan

You may have more tests after your diagnosis to find out:

  • How large is the cancer?
  • Where exactly is the cancer?
  • Has the cancer spread to any other parts of your body?

This is called staging. Staging tests for breast cancer include:

  • MRI scan. A scan that uses magnetic energy to build up a picture of the tissues inside your body. During the scan you will lie inside a tunnel-like machine.
  • CT scan. A type of X-ray that gives a detailed picture of the tissues inside your body.
  • PET scan. A radioactive injection that will show up any cancer spread to other parts of your body on a CT scan picture. 
  • Bone scan. A radioactive injection that can show areas of abnormal bone on a scan, which may be caused by cancer that has spread.
  • Ultrasound scan of the liver. A device like a microphone passed over your tummy to give a picture of your liver. It can show any abnormal changes that might suggest the cancer has spread there. 
  • Lymph node ultrasound scan. This is a scan that uses sound waves to look at the lymph nodes in the area of your armpit (axilla), to see if they look abnormal. The scan is done in the X-ray department of the hospital. The scan is painless and only takes a few minutes. If the lymph nodes look abnormal, a biopsy (tissue sample) will be taken to see if the cancer has travelled to the lymph nodes. 
  • Lymph node biopsy. This means taking and testing a sample of cells from the lymph nodes to see if they contain cancer cells. This can be done before surgery if the lymph nodes look abnormal on a scan.  Your surgeon may also remove lymph nodes during breast cancer surgery. 
Testing breast cancer cells

Samples of your cancer (biopsy) will be tested to give your doctors more information about your cancer, to help them plan the best treatment for you.

The cancer cells will be tested to see if they have receptors for certain hormones (hormone-receptor positive cancer) or a high level of the protein HER2 on their surface (HER2 positive cancer).

You may also have a test called Oncotype DX. This gives information about how your cancer might grow and if you're likely to benefit from chemotherapy.

Staging is important as it helps your medical team decide on the best treatment for your cancer.

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