Medical professionals today have been afforded the luxury of having available to them many different tools to assist in making breast cancer diagnosis more reliable, especially in its early stages. This is excellent news because it reduces the level of severity when detected early on.
Diagnosis begins with a clinical exam. The physician performs an exam using his hands which is similar to the recommended self-exam for all women over 19. Cancerous lumps typically feel hard and don’t move around like benign cysts. Cancer tumors usually have an irregular shape, while non cancerous lumps are round. Professionals are trained to distinguish the difference.
A mammogram assists in confirmation of the diagnosis. Modern digital mammograms typically rely on computer assistance. Detection of tumors is aided by complex algorithms that do a great job telling the difference between normal and suspect image sections. This tool greatly assists physicians in eliminating false positives and also helps in detecting smaller, less obvious issues in the early developmental stages.
Ultrasound technology is another modern method which has improved greatly since it was first introduced. They are perfect for helping to distinguish between cysts that are benign and cancerous tumors. Because cysts are harmless, fluid filled sacs they react differently to sound waves than the harder, denser cancerous cells.
MRI or Magnetic Resonance Imaging is another method used to diagnose breast cancer. Years ago it was unheard of for an insurance company to pay for this extremely pricey test. But recently costs have become lower and coverage has expanded. It is now more common. This machine works by passing a powerful magnetic field over the breasts, thus exciting the molecules in a way that does not harm the body, but still produces very distinctive results. This allows professionals to use images generated with an MRI to detect extremely small abnormalities and issues.
When other tests make professionals feel that a closer look is needed a biopsy is performed on the cells in question. Some may be as simple as a fine-needle aspiration where a small amount of fluid is removed with a needle from the breast lump in question. That fluid is then examined for cells that are indicative of cancer.
A deeper or core biopsy may be called for in certain cases. That too uses a needle, but one that’s thicker and removes tissue. Still more tissue is removed in a surgical biopsy. The sample is then examined by an oncologist for the presence of cancer cells.
A new test developed at John Hopkins offers promise for even more accurate early diagnosis. Called a QM-MSP (quantitative multiplex methylation-specific PCR), it relies on fluid drawn from the breast. That fluid is then chemically analyzed. When abnormally high levels of certain molecules are detected it indicates the presence of cancer cells. Some studies suggest that clusters with as few as 50 cancer cells can be detected in this way. It was able to detect cancer in 84% of breast tumor samples used.
With modern tests and techniques, diagnosis can be done early and with far greater reliability than in the past. That’s key to treating breast cancer at the earliest possible stage. That greatly improves the odds of keeping it from becoming a more serious matter than it has to be.