What to Expect During Breast Exams and Tests

doctor performing breast exam on womanClinical breast exam. During your well-care visits, your doctor may do a clinical breast exam. (This just means a breast exam done by a health care professional.) While you're lying on the exam table, undressed from the waist up, your doctor will check for lumps or anything unusual by palpating your breasts and underarms. This exam does not take the place of regular screening mammograms.

Breast self-exams. If you're at high risk for breast cancer, you may also want to do breast self-exams between your scheduled well-care visits and mammograms. Many women are the first to discover any changes, because they are familiar with what their breasts feel like normally.

Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that is used to screen for breast cancer. During a mammogram, the breast is squeezed tightly between two large plates. Flattening the breast in this way helps the radiologist — a specialist who reads these images — see abnormalities. For some women, especially those with smaller breasts, this process can be uncomfortable. The mammogram technician can help position your body in a way that minimizes this brief discomfort.

Breast ultrasound. Your doctor may recommend a breast ultrasound to find the cause of breast pain or inflammation, check out lumps, or get a better look at areas that may not appear clearly on a mammogram or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This is especially helpful in younger women with dense breasts.

During an ultrasound, gel is applied to the breast, and a small device called a transducer is moved back and forth over the breast, showing the tissues inside via a picture called a sonogram or ultrasound scan.

Breast biopsy. If a lump or suspicious area is found during a mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI, your doctor may recommend a breast biopsy. A sample of breast tissue will be taken and looked at under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

There are many advanced techniques for doing breast biopsies, such as using a computer to locate the exact spot for the sample from a mammogram, or an ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to guide a biopsy needle.