Diagnosis of Breast Cancer

If your healthcare provider suspects you might have breast cancer, specific exams and tests will be recommended to make a definitive diagnosis. We offer expert breast cancer screening and imaging tests at:

  • Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston
  • Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center in Boston
  • Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain
  • Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center at South Shore Health in Weymouth
  • Mass General Brigham Healthcare Center (Chestnut Hill)
  • Mass General Brigham Healthcare Center (20 Patriot Place, Foxborough)

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, our team of specialists in the Breast Oncology Program at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center will provide your cancer care. We evaluate thousands of patients for breast cancer each year. Affiliated with Harvard Medical School, our team of surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists work together to collect and evaluate all diagnostic information to ensure a clear understanding of your tumor type and characteristics. This information is then used to develop a targeted treatment plan designed to optimize your long-term health.

Breast cancer outpatient clinic services are available at:

  • Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston
  • Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) in Boston
  • Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center at South Shore Health in Weymouth

Breast cancer surgery services are available at:

  • Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston
  • Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital (BWFH) in Jamaica Plain
  • Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center at South Shore Health in Weymouth

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer Topics

Initial Evaluation

The initial step is a complete history and physical exam. This includes reviewing your personal and family medical history as well as determining current overall health concerns. A breast specialist will also perform a clinical breast examination. Diagnostic breast imaging may also be performed to further evaluate a finding on your breast exam.

Diagnostic Imaging

Watch a video on breast imaging.

We offer you the important benefit of having your breast images reviewed by breast imaging specialists who devote their time exclusively to breast imaging, including mammography, breast ultrasound and breast MRI. The high volume of exams that these specialists read enables them to be skilled at identifying the subtle changes in breast tissue which may indicate cancer.

Our experts utilize the most advanced technology to review imaging studies, including digital 3-D mammography which captures images of the breast that can be seen on a computer screen, and computer-aided detection (CAD) software which can search digitized mammographic images for abnormal areas of the breast that require further analysis.

Access information about digital 3-D mammography.

Your diagnostic tests may include one or more of the following procedures:

  • Mammogram - X-ray images of the breast. At all four sites (BWH, BWFH, DFCI, and SSH) we use digital mammograms, which provide a clear two-dimensional image highlighting unusual structures such as calcifications or masses which may need further evaluation.
  • Tomosynthesis - 3D digital imaging that uses compression and X-rays. The procedure feels similar to a mammogram, but takes extra images to allow doctors to examine each layer of the breast. Tomosynthesis may increase doctors' ability to find some cancers while also lowering the risk of false positive evaluations; however, it may also expose a person to additional radiation. Only research will determine which patients benefit most from tomosynthesis.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) - Contrast enhanced breast imaging is used in special situations, often for individuals who have a genetic predisposition to breast cancer and/or have unclear mammograms. Access Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about breast cancer screening with MRI.
  • Ultrasound - Imaging that can capture the size and structure of a potential tumor. Ultrasound can be used as an adjunct to screening, but more commonly, it is used in conjunction with mammography. For example, ultrasound can further characterize an abnormality seen on a mammogram, or help guide the needle during a breast biopsy.
  • Ductogram - X-ray examination that uses mammography and contrast material to obtain pictures, called galactograms, of the inside of the breast's milk ducts. Women with nipple discharge can be evaluated with this technique to identify the cause of the discharge.

In some cases, more extensive imaging may be necessary to determine whether breast cancer has spread beyond the breast. When this is the case, CT scans and/or bone scans may be used. In select cases, a PET scan may also be necessary.


If an imaging test reveals an abnormal finding that cannot be resolved through other imaging techniques, your doctor will likely recommend a biopsy. A biopsy involves the removal of a small sample of tissue through one of several techniques, depending on the location and quality of the tissue to be examined. Radiologists, pathologists and sometimes surgeons are involved in the biopsy process.

Types of biopsies include:

  • Fine needle aspiration - This nearly painless procedure involves the insertion of a very thin needle into the suspicious area of the breast. The clinician uses the needle to "aspirate" fluid and cells to be examined by a pathologist.
  • Core needle biopsy - When a slightly larger tissue sample is required for a definitive diagnosis, a clinician will use a hollow needle to withdraw a thin cylinder of tissue from the suspicious area. This type of biopsy requires local anesthesia.
  • Image-guided core needle biopsy - In cases in which locating a suspicious area through touch is impossible, radiologists use ultrasound, stereotactic (mammographic) imaging or MRI to guide the removal of tissue using a hollow needle. Stereotactic biopsy finds the exact location of a breast lump or suspicious area by using a computer and mammogram images to determine the three-dimensional lesion location within the breast. A sample of tissue is removed with a needle that is guided to the appropriate area using the 3D coordinates. A titanium clip is typically placed during a core needle biopsy to ensure that the area of interest can be identified after biopsy in the event that additional tissue must be removed.
  • Surgical biopsy - In relatively few cases, standard imaging and biopsy techniques may not provide enough information to either diagnose or rule out breast cancer. When that happens, radiologists and surgeons work together to remove all or part of a suspicious mass. If the lump can't be felt, a wire or radioactive seed is inserted to guide your surgeon to the right location. While a surgical biopsy does require sedation, it does not require an overnight hospital stay.

Once a biopsy is completed, tissue samples are examined by pathologists who specialize exclusively in breast cancer. Pathologists' findings are critical to determining the best treatment for your cancer. At Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, pathologists are key members of your medical team, providing consultation to clinicians and, at times, working side-by-side with surgeons. Our pathologists not only evaluate tissues to characterize your cancer, but they also investigate any unusual or unexpected findings in the breast tissue.

Watch this video on breast biopsy.

Tumor Grade and Staging

Researchers at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center have discovered that breast cancers differ not only in their location, size and behavior, but also in their hormonal and genetic characteristics. Consequently, treatment may vary significantly and will be customized according to your unique preferences and condition.

Tumor Grade

This system classifies cancer cells in terms of how abnormal they look under a microscope and is used to create an individualized treatment plan. Grade 1 tumors are generally considered the least aggressive, while Grade 3 tumors do not look like normal cells of the same type and tend to grow more rapidly than tumors with a lower grade.

Staging Breast Cancer

Cancer is staged based on tumor size, location, and the degree to which the cancer has spread, either to the lymph nodes and/or to other parts of the body. A review of your breast mammogram and other imaging, physical exams and additional scans can help to determine the clinical stage of your cancer.

  • Stage 0 breast cancer is a non-invasive condition which could be described as pre-cancerous. Stage 0 diagnoses include ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). DCIS is generally treated with surgery while LCIS is considered a risk factor for breast cancer in the future.
  • Stage I cancer is a tumor that is two centimeters or smaller and has not spread outside the breast. Stage I cancers are almost always curable.
  • Stage II and III cancer includes medium- to larger-sized tumors as well as tumors with positive lymph nodes. With advances in breast care treatment, stage II and stage III cancers are often curable, but many require additional treatments to achieve this goal.
  • In Stage IV, the cancer has spread to other organs of the body, most often the bones, lungs, or liver. Another name for Stage IV cancer is metastatic cancer.

Read more about types of breast cancer at Susan G. Komen.

Access information about types of breast cancer provided by The American Society of Breast Surgeons Foundation.

Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families to access computers and knowledgeable staff.

Access a complete directory of patient and family services.

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