If you have a symptom of secondary breast cancer your doctor may refer you for tests.

If you’ve had primary breast cancer, you won’t be offered routine tests to check for signs of it spreading because research has shown that this isn’t beneficial.

But if you have a potential sign or symptom of secondary breast cancer, your doctor may refer you for some of the following tests.

Imaging

You’ll normally have at least one of the following imaging tests to examine your organs for signs of secondary tumours:

  • X-ray
  • CT scan – a series of X-rays that are combined to create a detailed image of your body
  • Ultrasound – a scan that uses sound waves
  • MRI – a scan that uses radio waves and a magnetic field
  • Bone scan – tracking of a mildly radioactive substance injected into your body to highlight abnormal areas of bone

The exact imaging you have will depend on your symptoms. For example, if you have symptoms of secondary breast cancer in your bones you’ll probably have an X-ray or bone scan, whereas for liver symptoms you’d be more likely to have an ultrasound.

If your initial tests give unclear results, you may have a further test called a PET-CT scan. This involves having a CT scan to track a mildly radioactive substance injected into your body.

If these tests do identify any secondary tumours, you’ll normally have further tests to check if the cancer has spread anywhere else in your body. This will typically involve a bone scan and a CT scan.

You can find out more about each of these imaging techniques at Cancer Research UK.

Blood tests

You may have blood tests which will check for signs that organs such as your liver, kidneys or bones are working properly. For example, an unusually high amount of calcium in your blood can indicate the presence of a secondary tumour in your bones.

Biopsy

If you haven’t had breast cancer before, you’ll normally need to have a small sample of tissue or cells removed from a suspected tumour to confirm a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer. A biopsy is also important to help your doctors plan your treatment. For example, if the tumour cells have hormone receptors, then hormone therapies may be a good option for your treatment.

If you’ve had breast cancer recently, clear imaging results are likely to be enough to confirm a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer and a biopsy may not be necessary. But you may still have a biopsy to confirm the properties of your cancer have not changed and help plan your treatment.
 

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Breast Cancer Now’s health information is produced following best practice guidelines developed by the Patient Information Forum. 

Find out more about how we develop our health information and the Patient Information Forum.