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Bone Scans

Reviewed by: Emily F. Conant, MD

Updated October 1, 2010

A bone scan is used to determine whether breast cancer has traveled to your bones. It is different than a DEXA scan, which measures bone density. If your doctors already know that the cancer is in your bones, they might order a bone scan to determine the extent to which the cancer has traveled. A bone scan also may be done at the beginning of treatment to take a “baseline” picture of healthy bones or if a blood test suggests bone disease.

The testing process takes several hours from the time you arrive at the hospital, but the actual test only takes up to an hour. Several hours before the test, your doctor will inject a radioactive substance called a tracer into your arm. The tracer makes its way into your bone cells over several hours and highlights the damaged areas of bone. While you wait, you must stay in the hospital but you may have other tests. After the tracer reaches your bones, the radiologist will use a camera to scan your body while you lie very still. The test is not painful.

A bone scan may not be necessary for everyone. If you do not have invasive breast cancer or if you’re not having bone or joint pain, your doctor may not want to perform the test because of the cost and resources required. According to several studies, regular bone scans do not help women live longer. But in some cases, having a bone scan to rule out cancer as a cause of bone pain may help reassure you.