For most women, the results of a clinical breast exam (CBE) will be good news. The exam will find no signs of breast cancer.
If your exam does find something abnormal, you will need follow-up tests to check whether or not the finding is breast cancer. Take heart that most abnormal findings are not breast cancer. Sometimes follow-up tests show something less serious, like a benign (not cancer) breast condition. And, sometimes they show the breast tissue is normal.
Learn more about benign breast conditions.
If a CBE finds something abnormal, the exact follow-up tests that will be done depend on several things, such as the type of finding and your age. Follow-up most often begins with the least invasive tests (such as a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound). If needed, follow-up progresses to more invasive tests (such as a biopsy).
Follow-up on a breast lump
The most common abnormal finding from a CBE is a lump (also called a palpable mass because it can be felt). Your health care provider will check whether the lump is fluid-filled or solid. If it is fluid-filled, it is most likely a cyst. Cysts are a benign breast condition and can be left untreated in most cases (more on cysts).
If the breast lump is solid, it is more likely to be breast cancer and often needs more testing.
Women ages 30 and older
For women 30 and older, follow-up on a breast lump usually begins with a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Some women will need a biopsy to check whether or not the lump is breast cancer.
Learn more about biopsies.
Women under age 30
For women under 30 with a breast lump, follow-up is slightly different because most lumps in this age group are benign. Although ultrasound is usually the first follow-up test, for some women, the first step may be observation. This involves re-checking the lump after one to two menstrual periods to see if it goes away (often the case). If you are not comfortable waiting, talk to your health care provider or seek a second opinion.
A mammogram may also be done to check a breast lump. Some women will need a biopsy to check whether or not the lump is breast cancer.
Other abnormal findings
Other abnormal findings during a CBE may include (see pictures):
- Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening
- Change in the size or shape of the breast
- Dimpling or puckering of the skin
- Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
- Pulling in of the nipple or other parts of the breast
- Nipple discharge
As with a lump, these findings need proper follow-up to ensure they are not breast cancer.