An ultrasound can show changes to the breast tissue that may indicate the presence of cancer. The procedure is noninvasive and harmless.

Ultrasounds use soundwaves to produce images of different body parts, including the breasts.

However, doctors do not rely solely on ultrasounds to diagnose breast cancer. Instead, they use them as a follow-up to other screening tests to get a better, clearer view of the inside of the breast.

This article explores the definition of ultrasound, its purpose, why someone might need an ultrasound, and what to expect from the procedure.

a doctor is carrying out an ultrasound to check for breast cancerShare on Pinterest
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According to the Radiological Society of North America, ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the internal breast tissue. The procedure is harmless and noninvasive.

Unlike some other examinations, it does not expose a person to radiation.

A doctor may order an ultrasound of the breasts to help with diagnosing a lump or another abnormality revealed by other screenings, such as a physical exam, mammogram, or MRI.

Ultrasound imaging of the breasts can provide helpful information to a person’s doctor. This can include information on:

  • the identification of lumps or other abnormalities found during other screenings
  • the blood flow inside the breast
  • the identification of lumps that a mammogram does not detect
  • whether a lump is hard or a fluid-filled sac
  • changes in dense breast tissue
  • where to guide a biopsy needle
  • the size of a tumor

A doctor typically does not order an ultrasound on its own. Instead, they will use an ultrasound to get more information about abnormalities found during other testing methods.

For example, they may order an ultrasound to check a lump that a person can feel during a physical examination but that a mammogram does not detect. The ultrasound image can also help a doctor distinguish between a solid mass and a fluid-filled sac, which healthcare professionals refer to as a cyst.

A healthcare professional may use a breast ultrasound as a guide for a biopsy. If they detect a lump that may be cancerous, they can use the technique to guide a needle to acquire a small tissue sample for testing.

If the biopsy results indicate a lump is cancerous, a doctor can use an ultrasound to examine the tissue around the lump in more detail and help determine its size.

A healthcare professional can then use the size of the lump to determine the clinical stage of the cancer.

A person does not need any special preparation for an ultrasound.

Once at the doctor’s office, an ultrasound technician, or sonographer, can provide the person with a gown and ask them to remove all clothing above the waist.

With this in mind, an individual may wish to consider wearing something they can remove easily before the procedure, but this is not essential.

A healthcare professional generally carries out an ultrasound in an outpatient setting.

A person can expect to remove their clothing above the waist and lie on their back on an examination chair.

The sonographer may then request that the individual raise their arm over their head. They will provide instructions to help get them in a suitable position for the examination.

Once in position, the sonographer will dab a gel on the breast or their instrument. The gel helps eliminate air pockets between the wand and skin, which can block the soundwaves. It also assists in securing a connection between the wand and the skin.

Once the sonographer has applied the gel, they will move the wand around the breast. They may take measurements and various still images to provide the doctor with information about the breast.

As the sonographer moves the wand over the breast, a person may feel pressure or slight pain, especially if the breast is tender.

When the sonographer has the required imagery, they will wipe the area clean and provide the captured images of the breast to the doctor.

The procedure typically takes about 30 minutes. During the examination, the sonographer may request that a person switch positions.

Immediately following the ultrasound, a radiologist will review the images. In some cases, they may talk to the person after examining these images. Whether or not they review the images immediately, they will send the results to the person’s primary care doctor, who will discuss the results with the individual.

Doctors do not use ultrasounds for diagnosing breast cancer.

According to health experts, this is because research shows they are not accurate tools for diagnosis on their own.

In addition, ultrasounds can create many false-positive and false-negative results. A false positive means it may mistakenly determine a lump is cancerous when it is not. In contrast, a false-negative result shows a lump is not cancerous when it actually is.

Therefore, neither the American Cancer Society nor the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend ultrasounds for diagnosing breast cancer.

The procedure’s value comes from examining breast tissue following other screening techniques, such as a physical examination or mammogram. The ultrasound can help determine what a lump on the breast is.

One key benefit of ultrasounds is that they are procedures with little or no risk. They require no special preparation or stays in the hospital.

However, they are not effective primary diagnostic tools. Instead, doctors generally use them as follow-ups to other tests, such as mammograms or self-examinations.

The American Cancer Society notes several benefits to the procedure, saying that they:

  • are low cost
  • do not expose a person to radiation
  • can help identify fluid-filled sacs
  • can help with inserting a biopsy needle
  • are widely available in most healthcare facilities
  • are simple and noninvasive

Ultrasounds can play a role in diagnosing and staging breast cancer. They provide a harmless, simple, and cost-effective way to examine lumps or other abnormalities found during other screenings. They can also help a doctor guide a biopsy needle or gauge the size of a known tumor.

Ultrasounds are also very low risk and do not require any special preparations.

A person’s primary care doctor will receive and discuss the results with them. In some cases, the healthcare professional reviewing the ultrasound may speak to the individual shortly after the examination.