For many women, getting a call back from the doctor’s office informing them of an abnormality on their mammogram is scary, if not terrifying.
But an abnormal mammogram doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. In fact, the numbers are heavily in your favor to begin with: the American Cancer Society reports that only 10% of women are called back for more tests following their initial mammogram, and only 8 to 10% of those called back will need a biopsy to determine if cancer is present.
Nonetheless, it’s only natural to have anxiety if you receive a call from your doctor telling you that further tests are needed. It certainly helps to know what will happen at a follow-up appointment.
What happens next?
You’ll probably receive another mammogram at the follow-up appointment, as well as an ultrasound. The follow-up mammogram is called a diagnostic mammogram and typically involves taking more x-rays of your breast. The technician may magnify specific areas of the breast to get a more detailed picture or repeat previous views that may not have been clear on the initial mammogram.
The diagnostic mammogram will involve the same procedures of your initial mammogram, i.e., you’ll undress above the waist and stand in front of the mammography machine.
If you get an ultrasound, you’ll lie down on an examination table while a device called a transducer is placed on the breast and uses high-frequency sound waves to detect possible abnormalities.
You also may undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test if your doctor finds an area of your breast that can’t be evaluated with a mammogram or ultrasound. Like an ultrasound, an MRI is painless.
After the additional testing
You’ll meet with your doctor a few days after having your additional mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI. In most cases you’ll be told, 1) the suspicious area is nothing to worry about, 2) the area likely isn’t anything serious, but you’re asked to schedule your next mammogram sooner than normal, and 3) cancer isn’t ruled out and you’ll need a biopsy.
What if a biopsy is needed?
The majority of biopsy results are not cancer, but simply part of the final step in finding out. During a biopsy, a small amount of tissue or fluid is removed from the breast for further examination under a microscope. There are different types of biopsies, including:
- Fine needle aspiration biopsy
This type of biopsy involves the doctor inserting a thin, hollow needle into the skin to remove the fluid or tissue. You may receive a local anesthetic first.
- Core needle biopsy
A core needle biopsy uses a slightly larger needle that allows the doctor to remove several tissue samples. You’ll receive a local anesthetic to numb the targeted area before the biopsy begins. Ultrasound and other imaging equipment are used to help guide the needle.
- Surgical biopsy
In a surgical biopsy, a surgeon makes an incision and removes all or part of the tissue. It may be done under general anesthesia or with a local anesthetic. In most cases, stitches are needed to close the skin (and will leave a small scar).
After the biopsy
Following the biopsy, your breast tissue is sent to a lab, where it’s examined by a pathologist to determine if cancer cells are present. The results are usually available within a week and your doctor will go over them with you.
Remember, most breast changes and abnormalities aren’t cancer or life-threatening. Talking with loved ones, a counselor, or others who have undergone a breast biopsy may help ease your feelings of anxiety.
Lubbock Diagnostic Radiology’s team of board-certified radiologists has served the Lubbock area for over 30 years.