IM Board Review

A young woman with a breast mass: What every internist should know

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A 40-year-old premenopausal woman presents with a palpable lump in her left breast. She first noted it 2 months ago on self-examination, and it has steadily grown in size regardless of the phase of her menstrual cycle.

The patient has never undergone mammography. Her menarche was at age 12. At age 35, she had one child (whom she breastfed) after a normal first full-term pregnancy. She took oral contraceptives for 10 years before her pregnancy. She has no other medical problems. She has no family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

On examination, her breasts are slightly asymmetric, without skin discoloration, tenderness, swelling, nipple retraction, or discharge. A 1.5- to 2-cm, rubbery, mobile lump can be felt in the left breast at about the 2 o’clock position. No axillary lymph nodes can be palpated. The rest of her examination is normal.


Benign breast disease is found in approximately 90% of women 20 to 50 years of age who come to a physician with a breast problem.1

Nevertheless, breast cancer is of major concern. It is the most common type of cancer in women in the United States, responsible for an estimated 194,440 new cases and 40,610 deaths in 2009. It is also the leading cause of cancer-related death in women age 45 to 55 years in this country.2,3

Breast cancer is most common in postmenopausal women, its incidence rising sharply after the age of 45 and leveling off at age 75. The median age at diagnosis is 61 years. Still, 1.9% of breast cancers in women are diagnosed at age 20 to 34, 10.6% at age 35 to 44, and 22.4% at age 45 to 54.4

Thus, it is paramount to perform a thorough assessment and workup of women who have breast lumps, regardless of their age. Doing so allows breast cancer to be detected at an early stage. The 5-year survival rate is 98.0% for women with localized disease, 83.6% with regional disease, and 23.4% with distant disease.4


1. Which of the following are appropriate in the workup of this patient?

  • Mammography
  • Ultrasonography
  • Percutaneous needle biopsy of the lesion
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain
  • Computed tomography (CT) of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)

She should undergo mammography, ultrasonography, and percutaneous needle biopsy.

Physical findings that suggest breast cancer include a hard, isolated, sometimes nonmobile lump, serosanguinous nipple discharge, and unilateral nipple retraction. Peau d’orange skin discoloration can occur. A scaly, vesicular, or ulcerated rash with or without pruritus, burning, irritation, or pain of the nipple or skin (Paget disease of the breast) is found in 1% to 3% of breast cancers and may be initially dismissed as mastitis.5,6 Palpable enlarged axillary lymph nodes can suggest invasive breast cancer.

Mammography is recommended in all cases of suspicious breast lumps. In a patient with a palpable lump, diagnostic mammography has a positive predictive value of 21.8%, a specificity of 85.8%, and a sensitivity of 87.7%, which are higher values than in a patient without signs or symptoms.7

The BIRADS score. Mammographic findings are summarized using a scoring system devised by the American College of Radiology called BIRADS (Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System). This system is based on mass irregularity, density, spiculation, and presence or absence of microcalcifications. It standardizes the results of mammography, gives an estimate of the risk of breast cancer, and recommends the frequency of follow-up examinations.8 Scores range from 0 to 6:

  • 0—Incomplete assessment warranting additional evaluation
  • 1—Completely negative mammogram
  • 2—Benign lesion
  • 3—Requires follow-up mammogram at 6 months
  • 4—Risk of cancer is 2% to 95%; core biopsy needed
  • 5—Risk of cancer is more than 95%; core biopsy needed
  • 6—Cases that have already been proven to be malignant.

Ultrasonography is also done if a suspicious lesion is found on mammography or physical examination. It helps differentiate between solid and cystic masses. If a mass is identified as a cyst, ultrasonography can further characterize it as simple, complicated-simple, or complex. Simple cysts and complicated-simple cysts are unlikely to be malignant.9,10 Complex cysts or cysts associated with solid tissue are evaluated by biopsy.

Percutaneous needle biopsy should be done for a definitive diagnosis of most suspicious breast masses.

MRI can sometimes provide more accurate information about the possibility of multifocal breast cancer by revealing additional lesions missed on mammography or ultrasonography. It is also useful in determining more accurately the size of the breast tumor and looking for any possible contralateral lesions. In addition, it can sometimes detect enlarged axillary lymph nodes. However, it has poor specificity for breast cancer and may lead to additional and sometimes unnecessary diagnostic tests, which can delay treatment.

MRI’s role is therefore not clearly established, but it is commonly used in clinical practice. It is argued that workup of MRI findings may help in planning more accurate surgical procedures and may prevent reoperations. Based on retrospective analyses, results of breast MRI may lead to altered surgical treatment in approximately 13% of patients.11

Interestingly, a recent randomized trial showed no difference in reoperation rates between patients who underwent MRI before surgery vs those who did not. However, diagnostic workup of new MRI findings was not mandated by the study protocol, making the results of this trial difficult to interpret.12


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