Read about how imaging and biopsies are used to diagnose secondary breast cancer.

If your GP thinks you might have secondary breast cancer, he or she will refer you to hospital for tests.

Alternatively, if you’re already in contact with a breast cancer team (for follow up after early breast cancer), they can arrange tests for you.

You will have imaging to look for a cause of your symptoms. Some people will have a sample of tissue (a biopsy) taken too.

Imaging

The imaging you have will depend on your symptoms. Your radiologist will usually use imaging to look at your major organs, such as your liver and lungs, and your bones.

It is common for people to have some of the imaging tests below:

  • An x-ray, which uses low doses of radiation
  • An ultrasound, which uses sound waves
  • A computed tomography (CT) scan, which uses x-rays but gives clearer pictures than a standard x-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses radio waves and a magnetic field
  • A bone scan (bone scintigraphy), which uses radiation injected into your body to assess your bones
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)/CT which uses radiation injected into your body to look for possible tumours, alongside a CT scan

Biopsy

A biopsy is a small sample of tissue or cells taken for testing in the laboratory, to check the cells' characteristics. This helps your treatment team to plan the right treatment for you.

For example, if your cancer cells have hormone receptors on them, then hormone therapies may be a good option for your treatment.

Whether or not you have a biopsy taken may depend on:

  • Whether they can reach your tumours easily
  • How risky the biopsy procedure would be for you
  • Whether there is uncertainty about your diagnosis
  • Your own preferences

Not all people have a biopsy taken to diagnose their secondary breast cancer. If you have had breast cancer before and the imaging finds tumours, this may be enough for your doctors to be confident of your diagnosis.

For a few people, the characteristics of the cancer cells in their secondary tumours can be different to those of their original tumour (although they are still breast cancer cells).

Tips and advice

Advice on getting the best care

To help you feel confident you’re getting the best care, you may want to:

  • Ask whether your secondary tumour can (or has) been sampled to which treatments would be best for you

Information Standard

Information last reviewed: October 2015

Breast Cancer Now's health information is covered by NHS England's Information Standard quality mark. Find out how this resource was developed.