At a breast clinic you will have tests to diagnose breast symptoms
If you have been referred to a breast clinic with a sign or symptom you’ll usually have a physical examination and imaging of your breasts. You may also have a small sample of cells (a biopsy) taken from your breast for testing if the physical examination and imaging identify anything unusual.
You should normally have all your tests on one visit to the hospital to save you making several trips.
A doctor or nurse will examine your breasts to look for any signs or symptoms of breast cancer. They will also examine your armpits (sometimes referred to as the axilla) and the area around your collarbone to check for signs of cancer in your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are glands found in your armpit and other areas of your body that are part of your immune system.
Images will be taken of your breasts to look for signs of breast cancer. The best method of imaging will depend on your age and physical characteristics.
If you’re 40 or over you will have a mammogram (an x-ray that uses very low doses of radiation). You may also have an ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create images of the inside of your body.
If you are under 40 (or pregnant or breastfeeding) you are likely to have an ultrasound rather than a mammogram. This is because your breasts are likely to be denser, which can make mammograms difficult to interpret. Breast density is the amount of breast tissue compared to fat in your breasts, and it varies a lot between women.
You may also have an ultrasound to check for signs of breast cancer in the lymph nodes of your armpit.
If you’re having a biopsy, one of two techniques will be used: a core biopsy or a fine needle aspiration (FNA).
Core biopsy is more common. A needle will be used to remove a sample of tissue from your breast and/or armpit. Breast imaging (ultrasound or mammography) is sometimes used to guide the needle to the correct area. You will be given a local anaesthetic beforehand, and although the biopsy itself should not be painful, the local anaesthetic injection may briefly cause discomfort. Some bruising can occur at the biopsy site, but the wound is too small to need stitches and should heal quickly.
In some cases you may have a fine needle aspiration (FNA) instead, for example if you have breast implants or your breast lump is difficult to reach. A very thin needle will be used to take a sample of cells from your breast and/or armpit. Breast imaging (ultrasound or mammography) is sometimes used to guide the needle to the correct area. You may find FNA painful, although this usually passes quickly. You might be offered a local anaesthetic before FNA to reduce any pain.
A pathologist will examine your biopsy sample in the laboratory to determine whether or not it contains cancer cells. The biopsy should be performed on the same visit to the breast clinic as your other tests.
When will I get my results?
You will usually have an appointment in three to five working days to receive your results. You should never have to wait longer than a week for your results. You may want to have your partner or a friend with you when you receive your results.
Most women’s results show that they don’t have breast cancer. You may receive a diagnosis of a benign condition (not cancer), such as a cyst or fibroadenoma, which do not normally need treatment. Your doctor or nurse will explain these to you in more detail.
If you receive a diagnosis of breast cancer, your breast care team will talk you through the treatment options available to you and help you make any decisions. You should normally begin treatment within one month of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
You can find more information on benign breast conditions at Breast Cancer Care.
Information last reviewed: November 2017
Next review due: November 2020
Breast Cancer Now's health information is covered by NHS England's Information Standard quality mark. Find out how this resource was developed.