Most of the time, women getting their routine mammogram will receive a letter within 30 days saying the results were normal. But if doctors find something suspicious, they’ll call you back – usually within just 5 days – to take new pictures or get other tests.
Getting that call can be scary, but a suspicious finding does not mean you have cancer. In fact, less than 10 percent of women called back for more tests are found to have breast cancer.
What else could it be?
A suspicious finding may be just dense breast tissue, a cyst, or even a tumor that isn’t cancer. Other times, the image just isn’t clear and needs to be retaken. Or, if this is your first mammogram, your doctor may want to look at an area more closely simply because there is no previous mammogram to compare it with.
What will happen at the follow-up appointment?
You may also have an ultrasound test that uses sound waves to create a computer image of the tissues inside your breasts. For this test, you will lie on a table while a technician applies some gel and places a transducer – a small instrument that looks like a microphone – on your skin. The test is painless and does not expose you to radiation. This test is often used to look more closely at areas of concern found on a mammogram.
In addition, some women will have an MRI. For a breast MRI, you will lie face down inside a narrow tube for up to an hour while sensors capture information used to create a more detailed image of the tissues inside your breasts. The test is painless, but can be uncomfortable for people who don’t like small, enclosed spaces.
You can expect to learn the results of your tests during the visit. You are likely to be told 1 of 3 things:
The suspicious area turned out to be nothing to worry about and you can return to your regular mammogram schedule.
The area is probably nothing to worry about, but you should have your next mammogram sooner than normal — usually in 4 to 6 months — to make sure it doesn’t change over time.
Cancer was not ruled out and a biopsy is needed to tell for sure.
You will also get a letter with a summary of the findings that will tell you if you need follow-up tests or when you should schedule your next mammogram.
What if I need a biopsy?
Even if you need a breast biopsy, it still doesn’t mean you have cancer. Most biopsy results are not cancer, but a biopsy is the only way to find out. During the procedure, a small amount of tissue is removed and looked at under a microscope.
There are several different types of biopsies – most use a needle, but some use an incision. The type you have depends on things like how suspicious the tumor looks, how big it is, where it is in the breast, how many tumors there are, other medical problems you might have, and your personal preferences.
The tissue sample will be sent to a lab where a specialist, called a pathologist, will look at it. It will take a few days, maybe even more than a week, for you to find out the results. Once you get them, it’s important to learn whether the results are final, or whether you need another biopsy. You may also decide that you want to get a second opinion.
If the results are negative or benign, that means no cancer was found. Be sure to ask the doctor whether you need any additional follow-up, and when you should have your next screening mammogram. If the biopsy shows that you do have cancer, your doctor may refer you to a breast surgeon or other breast specialist.
What if it’s cancer?
If you do have cancer and you are referred to a breast specialist, use these tips to make your appointment as useful as possible:
Make a list of questions to ask at the appointment. Download a list from the American Cancer Society or call us at 1-800-227-2345.
Bring a family member or friend with you. They can serve as an extra pair of ears, help you remember things later, and give you support.
Ask if you can record important conversations.
Take notes. If someone uses a word you don’t know, ask them to spell it and explain it.
Ask the doctors or nurses to explain anything you don’t understand.
How can I stay calm while waiting?
Waiting for appointments and the results of tests can be frightening. Many women experience strong emotions including disbelief, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness during this time. Some things to remember:
It’s normal to have these feelings.
Most breast changes are not cancer and are not life-threatening.
Talking with a loved one or a counselor about your feelings may help.
Talking with other women who have been through a breast biopsy may help.
The American Cancer Society is available at 1-800-227-2345 around the clock to answer your questions and provide support.