Further tests after diagnosis

If your biopsy shows that there are breast cancer cells, you will need to have further tests. This will help you and your doctor make decisions about treatment.

You will usually have blood tests and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. This scan uses magnetism to build up a picture of your body. It may be used to find out more about the size of the cancer and to help decide which operation you should have.

You may also have further tests to see whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. You may have a bone scan, which shows up abnormal areas of bone. You may also have a CT (computerised tomography) scan. This scan uses x-rays to build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. It takes less than half an hour and isn’t painful.

Waiting for your test results can be difficult. It can help to talk about your worries with someone close to you.

Further tests for breast cancer

If the biopsy results show there are breast cancer cells, you may need more tests before you can start your treatment.


Blood tests

You may have blood samples taken to check your general health and how well your liver and kidneys are working. Sometimes, doctors will use specific blood tests to diagnose and monitor your cancer. We have more detailed information about having a blood test.


MRI scan

This test uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body. The scanner is a powerful magnet so you may be asked to complete and sign a checklist to make sure it's safe for you. The checklist asks about any metal implants you may have, such as a pacemaker, surgical clips, bone pins, etc. You should also tell your doctor if you've ever worked with metal or in the metal industry as very tiny fragments of metal can sometimes lodge in the body. If you do have any metal in your body it's likely that you won't be able to have an MRI scan. In this situation another type of scan can be used.

Before the scan, you'll be asked to remove any metal belongings including jewellery. Some people are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm, which doesn't usually cause discomfort. This is called a contrast medium and can help the images from the scan to show up more clearly. During the test you'll lie very still on a couch inside a long cylinder (tube) for about 30 minutes. It's painless but can be slightly uncomfortable, and some people feel a bit claustrophobic. It's also noisy, but you'll be given earplugs or headphones. You can hear, and speak to, the person operating the scanner.


Other tests

Some women may have other tests such as a CT scan or bone scan to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.


Having a bone scan

This scan looks at all the bones in the body. It’s more sensitive than an x-ray, and it shows up any abnormal areas of bone more clearly.

A small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a vein in your hand or arm. Abnormal bone absorbs more radioactivity than normal bone, so these areas are highlighted and picked up by the scanner as ‘hot spots’. The level of radioactivity used in the scan is very small and doesn’t cause any harm to your body.

You will need to wait for 2–3 hours between having the injection and the scan. You may want to take a magazine, book or MP3 player with you to help pass the time.

Afterwards

If ‘hot spots’ do show up on a bone scan, it isn’t always clear whether they’re caused by cancer or by other conditions, such as arthritis. Sometimes a CT scan or MRI scan may help the doctors decide whether the changes seen on a bone scan are caused by bone cancer or by another condition.

Some centres may do an MRI scan of the whole skeleton instead of a bone scan. This is to check for signs of cancer in any other bones away from the main tumour.


What happens in a CT scan?

A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. The scan takes 10–30 minutes and is painless. It uses a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and will not harm anyone you come into contact with. You will be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the scan.

CT scan
CT scan

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You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. It’s important to let your doctor know if you are allergic to iodine or have asthma, because you could have a more serious reaction to the injection.

You’ll probably be able to go home as soon as the scan is over.


Waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse or one of the organisations listed on our database, can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

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