Before you have any test, ask your doctor or nurse what the practice’s policy is for getting results back to you. In the case of mammograms or other imaging tests, your doctor’s office may allow the testing center to give you immediate results. Or your doctor may prefer to give you the results in person, either over the phone or during an appointment. For tissue and blood tests, which are done when breast cancer is suspected or already diagnosed, you likely will get results directly from your doctor. This will happen after he or she gets the report (or reports) back from the lab or testing center.
The most important thing is for you to know how and when you can get the results, instead of just waiting for your doctor to get back to you. Doctor’s offices are busy places, and it’s often up to you to put a plan in place for getting the information you need.
Getting mammogram and other imaging test results
Every imaging center has its own policy regarding presentation of results, whether they are good or bad. Some tell you all results on the spot. Other centers will not reveal any information to you, no matter how much you insist. It may be possible to get the results of your mammogram or other imaging tests right away at a center with a radiologist on site. In this case, if your test is negative (that is, it shows no abnormality), you're given the information and you go home. If your results are clearly abnormal or at all suspicious, you may or may not be informed at the time. You may just be told you’ll be hearing from your doctor.
The best person to give you your mammography or other imaging results is the doctor who examined your breasts and ordered the study. This doctor knows you best. Some radiologists perform both the mammogram and the physical exam, so an immediate reading of your study is appropriate. However, many women still want an instant interpretation of their mammogram or other imaging test by the reading radiologist. They don’t want to wait until their physical exams can be assessed. But it can be very awkward for one doctor to tell another doctor’s patient any news, particularly bad news.
In any case, spend some time thinking about what you need to feel most comfortable as you go through the testing process. The following tips may be helpful to you:
- Choose a center with a policy that works for you. If you are the kind of person who must have results quickly to prevent anxiety, choose a high-quality center that will accommodate your wishes. Unless your imaging center has a definite policy to the contrary, your demand for immediate results can usually be met, as long as there is a radiologist on site who can read your mammogram or other imaging study.
- If you prefer to discuss the results with your doctor, make arrangements in advance for doing so. You may prefer to get the results of your mammogram or other imaging test directly from your doctor. Once your test is scheduled, make arrangements to discuss the results afterwards with your doctor. A phone appointment is usually sufficient if you’ve had a routine screening mammogram. An office visit may be better if the test was done for another reason, such as suspicion of cancer.
Make it clear that you want to know the results — even if everything’s OK. Your doctor may not be able to get back to you right away. It can take some time for him or her to connect with the radiologist who read the test. Many centers insist that the radiologist who establishes the finding must pass it directly to the referring physician to avoid any slippage, misplacement, or loss of information. If you call for the results, your doctor may not be available, and your results can just linger there. If your mammogram shows nothing unusual, your doctor may insert the report directly into your record without calling you. He or she might assume you expect a call only about something abnormal.
Don’t assume that “no news is good news.” Make it clear to your doctor that you want to hear any and all results. That’s why setting up a time in advance to discuss the results, as suggested above, is such a good idea. Some states now require that mammogram reports be sent to the patient at her home.
Ask questions. Regardless of who ordered the mammogram or other study, who does it, and who reads it, you should ask for some immediate feedback if you are told you need to come back to have extra views taken. Needing additional films or extra views often means that part of the image wasn’t clear, not necessarily that there’s a suspicious area. Ask to speak to the radiologist who will be reading your images. You don’t want to go home feeling puzzled and anxious.
Whatever test you have, make sure that all of your doctors and nurse practitioners are sent a copy of the report. When you sign in for the test, let the receptionist know that each one is to receive a copy of the report to follow. You can even come prepared with a list of your doctors’ and nurses’ names to hand to the receptionist. Ask if you can get a copy of the report and, if desired, copies of the films or digital images saved to a compact disc (CD). It can be especially helpful to have the images if you think you might want to get a second opinion about a suspicious finding.
Getting pathology test and blood test results
If your doctor thinks you could have breast cancer, he or she will order tests on the tissue that is removed during a biopsy. These tissue tests not only tell you whether or not you have cancer, but also provide more information about the cancer itself and possible treatment options. These results come back in what’s known as the pathology report. Many people get an initial report after the biopsy and a more complete report after surgery to remove the cancer — but you may also receive a series of reports as tests are completed. Once cancer is diagnosed, blood tests are often used to assess the impact of treatments on the cancer and your overall health.
The following tips may be helpful to you in getting your test results:
Give it time. Not every test result can be reported immediately. For the pathology report, for example, a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in diagnosing disease based on examination of tissue) needs time to prepare and analyze the tissue. Often, the information gained from any test is limited without full knowledge of your medical history and physical exam results. Your doctor may need to discuss this information and your test results with other doctors to arrive at an accurate interpretation. That takes time. Agony or not, you usually can't be spared that wait. Allow a week for results for most tests.
Some doctors have a standing policy requiring all patients to come in for all results, good or bad. That way, “Come in to my office” is routine, not the signal of bad news. But if you want results as soon as possible and your doctor’s schedule is too busy to allow you to come in on the spot, you may opt for the results-by-phone system — whether the news is good or bad. Make your wishes clear in advance and set up a plan that meets your needs.
- Let your doctor know who, what, when, where, and how. To speed up the process, call your doctor when you’ve completed a test. Leave a specific message stating exactly what you are calling about. Tell what test was done, when it was done, where it was done, where you will be, providing all your phone numbers and when and until how late at night to call. Your doctor can then get back to you and give you the information you want as soon as it’s in hand. You may also want to specify just what information can be passed on to you through a third party if you miss the call and someone else takes it for you. Or, if you may be out, be clear about what information may be left for you on your answering machine or voicemail.
- Make an appointment. Making an appointment for a phone call with your doctor can save you some stress and phone-tag hassle. Set up a definite time or ask for a time frame, for example between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Arrange in advance that if you don't hear from your doctor by 3 p.m., you will call back. You won’t be stranded waiting, and you can plan to have someone around when you get the call — just in case. Usually, test results are easily presented and discussed over the phone. Even if the results are complex and perhaps bring bad news, you can start making a plan of action and arrange to see your doctor in person for a more complete discussion.
- Make it clear that you want to know the results — even if everything’s OK. As with imaging test results, your doctor may not be able to get back to you right away. She or he may not have connected with the laboratory that did the pathology analysis or bloodwork. Make it clear to your doctor that you want to hear any and all results, whether good or bad. Again, don’t assume that “no news is good news.”
- Keep records. Make sure that for every test you have, the results (whether positive or negative) get passed on to the physician who will act on those results. Once in a great while, test results get lost and no one is aware of the loss. So it’s a good idea for you to keep track of your records yourself. The Keeping Track of Your Records page features some tips about how to do this.
If something shows up that needs to be biopsied, I'll often show you the film so that you can see how big or small the lump is. But the mammograms are always yours, legally, and you can see them and even take them somewhere else if you wish. If you're not satisfied by the explanations you get, keep pursuing more information. When you go to a new center, be sure to bring your old mammograms.
Susan Greenstein Orel, M.D.