Everything you need to know about visiting a breast clinic
If your doctor or screening service refers you to a breast clinic you will have a series of tests. Commonly, women have up to three tests, known as ‘triple assessment’. This involves a physical examination, breast imaging and a biopsy. Sometimes, women don’t need to have a biopsy. All these tests should happen on the same day.
A hospital doctor or specialist nurse will examine your breasts, armpits, the area around your collarbone and neck to look for any abnormalities, including lumps or other changes.
Breast imaging will involve either a mammogram or ultrasound. The best method of imaging will depend on your age and physical characteristics. You may even have both.
This is an X-ray of your breast tissue using very low doses of radiation. You’ll have two images taken of each breast in the same way that women attending routine NHS breast screening will have experienced. Sometimes extra images may be needed.
Ultrasound scans create a picture of your breast using sound waves. If you’re under 40 (or under 35 in Scotland), you’ll probably be scanned using ultrasound as this method provides better images of a younger woman’s breasts – which tend to have denser breast tissue.
If your hospital doctor or specialist nurse thinks you may have a non-cancerous condition (such as a cyst or fibroadenoma), they may use ultrasound instead of or before a mammogram. Ultrasound can also be used to image the armpits.
A biopsy is a sample of tissue or cells taken for a specialist doctor (known as a pathologist) to examine in the laboratory to look for cancer cells.
The most common method for taking the sample is called ‘core biopsy’ where a small amount of tissue is removed with a needle. This is done under local anaesthetic.
Also common is ‘fine needle aspiration’ (FNA), where a sample of cells is taken using a fine needle and syringe.
Your hospital doctor will recommend the most suitable type of biopsy for you.
Either technique can be performed in an outpatient clinic and you can go home afterwards (unless you have further appointments to attend).
Your hospital team
Your tests (and any subsequent treatment) will involve a team of healthcare professionals – all specialists in their field (often called a breast care team or multidisciplinary team). The team includes:
- A breast surgeon: a surgeon specialising in breast surgery who will probably be your main doctor in the first instance
- A breast care nurse (also known as a key worker or nurse consultant): a nurse specialising in breast cancer who will be a key contact for you throughout your care
- A radiologist: a doctor who specialises in imaging the body through X-rays and other techniques
- An oncologist: a doctor specialising in the treatment of cancer
- A pathologist: a doctor specialising in the diagnosis and classification of diseases by laboratory tests, such as the examination of tissues and cells under a microscope
Information last reviewed: 21 August 2013
Next review due: August 2016
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