Whether you have been asked to attend the breast clinic after being referred by your GP (local doctor) or called for assessment following routine screening, you may feel worried or frightened that you might have breast cancer. Different people find different ways of coping during this uncertain time. It may help to talk things through with friends or family or your GP, or to keep yourself busy and active.
Although these feelings are likely to continue until you get your results, it may be reassuring to know that most breast problems are benign (not cancer).
Being referred by your GP
GPs follow guidelines to decide whether or not to send you to a breast clinic. They usually will if you have a new change in your breast such as a definite lump, puckering or dimpling, changes to your nipple, including a rash or discharge, or severe and persistent breast pain.
How long will I wait for an appointment?
In England, guidance from the Department of Health says that all patients referred by a GP to a specialist with breast symptoms, even if cancer is not suspected, should be seen within two weeks. Until recently, if your GP felt the referral was urgent, you would be seen within two weeks of them requesting an appointment for you. If it was non-urgent you may have waited longer. It may take some time before this guidance is implemented in all areas so if you have queries about the waiting time for your appointment, talk to your GP.
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland guidance emphasises the importance of patients with suspected breast cancer being seen promptly in a specialist breast clinic. Ideally, this should be within two weeks.
Whether you are referred to a specialist urgently or otherwise, the problem may still turn out to be benign.
Being recalled to the breast clinic following routine screening
About 1 in 20 women are called back to the breast clinic following routine breast screening because they need more tests at an assessment clinic. This happens more often after a first mammography, usually because there are no other mammograms to compare with. (Something that may look unusual on your mammogram may be normal for you.)
How long will I wait for an appointment?
The NHS Breast Screening Progamme (NHSBSP) follows quality standards. These include the time it takes between a routine screening mammogram and attending a breast assessment clinic. If you need to attend an assessment clinic, the standards say there should be no longer than three weeks between your mammogram and your appointment at the clinic.
What to expect at the clinic
A series of tests will be carried out during your visit to the breast assessment clinic, which may take several hours. If you bring a friend or relative with you for company or support, they will not usually be allowed in areas such as x-ray rooms.
A doctor or specialist nurse experienced in diagnosing and treating breast problems will see you first. They will ask for details of your symptoms. You need to fill in a short questionnaire about any family history of breast problems and any medication you are taking.
This will be followed by a breast examination where the doctor or nurse will check both your breasts when you are sitting and when you are lying down. As part of the examination it is usual to examine the lymph nodes (glands) under your arm. You may then need to have further tests. These will usually include one or more of the following:
Not everyone will need an FNA or core biopsy. This will depend on your symptoms and the findings of the radiological imaging (mammogram/ultrasound).
A combination of clinical examination, radiological imaging and FNA/core biopsy is known as a triple assessment. Sometimes all these tests are carried out on your first visit, with the results being available later that day. This is known as a one-stop clinic.
In some hospitals this isn’t available and you may have to make another appointment for further tests or to get your results. You may have to wait up to a week for your test results, although this will vary with each breast clinic. Ask your GP for information on what is available at your local hospital.
To find out more about the tests you may have, visit our Types of test page.
Visit the Royal College of Radiologist website to take a virtual tour of a radiology department in your hospital to find out more about what you can expect.
Getting your results
The hospital will tell you when to expect your results. It can be helpful to have your partner or a close friend or relative with you when you get them.
For the majority of women, breast assessment shows normal breast changes or a benign breast condition. In these cases the specialist will explain what it is and whether you need any treatment or follow up. See our Benign breast conditions factsheets for more information.
If your results show that you have breast cancer you may feel all sorts of emotions such as shock, fear, anger and helplessness. You may find it hard to take in what you are being told. Having someone with you who can listen carefully or ask questions can be very helpful.
You will also meet, or be put in contact with, a breast care nurse, who will talk to you about your diagnosis and treatment. They will provide you with support and written information and can be a point of contact for you throughout your treatment and afterwards.
Whatever happens at the breast clinic, it’s still important to be breast aware. Breast awareness means getting to know how your breasts look and feel, so you know what is normal for you. If you notice any changes that are unusual for you, go and see your GP as soon as you can. It’s important to be breast aware in between your screening mammograms.
Content last review January 2012; next planned review 2013