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Bone scans

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A bone scan helps your doctors learn whether breast cancer has traveled to your bones. It’s different than a DEXA scan, which measures bone density. Bone scans may also be done at the start of treatment to take a baseline picture of healthy bones, or if a blood test suggests bone disease.

If your doctors already know you have metastatic breast cancer to the bone, they might order a bone scan to find out the extent of the cancer or to study response to treatment.

Not everyone needs a bone scan. Your doctor may not order a bone scan if:

If you had early-stage breast cancer, studies have not shown that getting regular bone scans after you finish treatment helps 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.

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Getting the test

The testing process takes several hours from the time you arrive at the hospital, but the test itself 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. Then a radiologist will use a gamma camera to scan your body while you lie very still. The tracer collects in areas of abnormal bone, which appear brighter than other areas on the scan. While you wait for the study to be completed, you must stay in the hospital. The test is not painful.

Sometimes, the bone is abnormal because it contains tumor cells, or a metastasis. But sometimes the bone appears abnormal on the scan for a benign (noncancerous) reason, such as a healed fracture. You may need other tests such as an x-ray, CT or MRI to tell whether the area is a metastasis or benign.

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Reviewed and updated: August 31, 2015

Reviewed by: Marion Brody, MD

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