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Tests and Procedures

Breast Scan

What is a breast scan?

A breast scan is an imaging test to look at your breasts. It is used when a mammogram has not given your health care provider enough information.

A breast scan is a type of nuclear imaging test. This means that a tiny amount of a radioactive matter is used during the scan. The radioactive matter (radioactive tracer) sends out gamma rays. These are picked up by the scanner to make a picture of your breasts.

The areas of the breast where the radioactive tracer collects in greater amounts are called "hot spots." The areas that do not absorb the tracer and appear less bright on the scan image are referred to as "cold spots." Cancer cells are usually the hot spots in a breast scan.

A breast scan can be helpful in diagnosing breast cancer in younger women. Younger women usually have denser breasts than older women. Denser breast tissue can also happen because of:

  • Fibrocystic disease
  • Fatty breast tissue
  • Past breast surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biopsy
  • Breast implants

Why might I need a breast scan?

You may need a breast scan if the results of a mammogram are uncertain. Or your health care provider may use a breast scan along with mammography.

Your provider may order a breast scan if he or she thinks you may have:

  • Tumor
  • Infection (abscess)
  • Collection of blood (hematoma)
  • Cyst

Your provider may also order a breast scan to see how well blood is flowing through your breast tissue.

If you have breast cancer, a breast scan can help your provider figure out the stage of your cancer. He or she may also use the scan as a follow up after surgery, chemotherapy, or other breast cancer treatment.

Your provider may have other reasons to recommend a breast scan.

What are the risks of a breast scan?

The risk from the radioactive tracer is very low. The amount used in the test is very small. You may feel some slight discomfort when the tracer is injected. Allergic reactions to the tracer are rare, but they may happen.

Lying on the scanning table during the procedure may cause some discomfort or pain for certain people.

Tell your health care provider if you:

  • Are allergic to or sensitive to medicines, contrast dyes, or latex.
  • Are pregnant or think that you might be pregnant. The scan may not be safe for the fetus.
  • Are breastfeeding. The tracer may contaminate your breast milk.
  • Are about to start your period. A scan done at this point may not be accurate.

You may have other risks that are unique to you. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your health care provider before the procedure.

How do I get ready for a breast scan?

  • Your health care provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask him or her any questions you have about the procedure.
  • You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.
  • You do not need to stop eating or drinking before the test. You also will not need medicine to help you relax (sedation).
  • Tell your provider if you are allergic to or sensitive to latex, medicines, contrast dyes, or iodine.
  • Tell your provider if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
  • Tell your provider about all medicines you are taking. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and herbal supplements.
  • Tell the technologist if you have breast implants.
  • Follow any other instructions your provider gives you to get ready.

What happens during a breast scan?

You may have a breast scan as an outpatient or as part of your stay in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your health care provider's practices.

Generally, a breast scan follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove all jewelry and clothing above the waist. You will be given a gown to wear.
  2. An intravenous (IV) line will be started in your arm or hand opposite the breast to be looked at. If both breasts are being looked at, the IV may be started in a vein in a foot.
  3. You will lie face down on a special table made for breast scans. The breast to be scanned will be placed through an opening in the table.
  4. The radionuclide will be injected into the IV. You may have a slight metallic taste after the injection.
  5. The technologist will begin taking images a few minutes after the injection. He or she will place the scanner over the breast. Or the technologist may use at different kind of scan called SPECT.
  6. You may be asked to change positions during the scan. For example, you may lie on your back or sit up. You may be asked to sit with your arms straight out or above your head.
  7. When the scan is done, the IV will be removed.

The breast scan is not painful. But you may have some discomfort or pain from lying still during the test. This may because of recent surgery or a joint injury. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and do the scan as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort or pain.

What happens after a breast scan?

You should move slowly when getting up from the scanner table to avoid any dizziness or lightheadedness.

You may be told to drink plenty of fluids and empty your bladder often for 1 to 2 days after the scan. This will help flush the radioactive tracer from your body.

The medical staff will check the IV site for any signs of redness or swelling. Tell your health care provider if you see any pain, redness, or swelling at the IV site after you go home. These may be signs of infection or another type of reaction.

You may go back to your usual diet and activities as directed by your health care provider.

Your health care provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
  • When and how will you get the results
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
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