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Breast cancer

Diagnosis of breast cancer

Breast cancer is most often identified through a mammogram, a type of scan that shows the breast tissue and any abnormal growths.

Breast cancer can also be diagnosed through X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRI imaging. If you or your doctor identify an abnormal lump through physical examination or imaging, your doctor may remove a small amount of tissue (in a “biopsy”) to analyze it for signs of cancerous cell growth.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will also run tests to determine the type of cancer, check for hormone receptors, and see if cancer has spread beyond the breast (which is called metastasis).

The results of these tests, along with the staging of breast cancer, will help your doctor come up with the best treatment recommendations for you.


Treatment depends on the patient and the type and stage of breast cancer. Common treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Surgery
  • Hormone therapy
  • Targeted immune therapy

Depending on how advanced your breast cancer is, your doctor may also recommend a surgical intervention to remove the cancerous cells. Common surgeries for breast cancer include:

  • Lumpectomy (or partial mastectomy). If your cancer hasn’t spread beyond a localized area of breast tissue, your surgeon may recommend a breast-conserving surgery that maintains as much breast tissue as possible while removing the cancerous cells. The amount of tissue removed will depend on where the cancerous growth is and how much the cells have expanded. In most cases, women who undergo lumpectomy will also require radiation treatment.
  • Mastectomy. In some cases, breast cancer surgery will require the complete removal of one or both breasts.
  • Lymph node biopsy and dissection. The lymph nodes surrounding the breast and under the arm are often the first area where cancerous growth spreads. To measure this spread, your doctor may remove some of the lymph nodes to analyze the extent of your cancer.
  • Reconstruction. If you undergo a partial or full mastectomy, you may choose to undergo reconstruction after your cancer is in complete remission. Reconstructive surgery includes several types of procedures designed to recreate the appearance of breast tissue. If you think you may want to undergo reconstructive surgery, make sure to discuss your options with your surgeon at Dignity Health as soon as possible, as this may affect the surgical approach used in your mastectomy or lumpectomy.

Dignity Health provides expert, personalized treatment for breast cancer.


In the past 60 years, the proportion of those diagnosed with cancer who survive has more than tripled.

Your recovery will depend on the type of treatment you undergo. There are hundreds of potential therapies for breast cancer, including a wide variety of medications, hormonal therapies, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, hormonal therapy, and surgery.

Many of these treatments bring side effects. Many of these side effects, such as nausea, hair loss, fatigue, and pain, are temporary. Others, such as swelling due to the removal of lymph nodes, nerve damage from surgery, and scarring or breast removal from surgery, may be permanent. Some women also find that loss of breast tissue can result in psychological effects that persist past treatment.

Modern approaches also offer many ways to increase your comfort during treatment and maximize the speed and completeness of your recovery.

How often should you be screened for breast cancer?

Women who are between the ages of 45 and 54 should get a mammogram every year. Women above 54 should get a mammogram every two years and should continue regular screenings as long as they are in good health.

If you have a higher risk of breast cancer due to family history, carrying a higher-risk gene, previous cancer diagnosis, or exposure to carcinogens, your doctor may recommend more frequent screenings.

Regular self-examinations can also help you identify any abnormal lumps or bumps yourself, in between your screening appointments.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.