CT scan for secondary breast cancer

CT (or CAT) stands for computerised (axial) tomography. You may have a CT scan to show whether the breast cancer has spread elsewhere in the body.

Places where breast cancer can spread to include the bones, liver, lungs, or brain.

The CT scanner takes a number of detailed x-rays of your body from different angles. The computer then puts them together to give a series of pictures.

Depending on your symptoms you might have a whole body CT scan. Or you may have a scan of just one area of your body, for example, your chest or head and neck.

Photograph of a CT scanner

You usually have a CT scan in the x-ray (radiology) department as an outpatient. A radiographer operates the scanner. The whole appointment can take up to an hour and a half depending on which part of your body they are scanning.

Some people feel claustrophobic or closed in when they‘re having a scan. Tell the radiographers before your appointment if you think you’re likely to feel this way. They can take extra care to make sure you’re comfortable.

Before your CT scan

A couple of hours before your scan you might need to stop eating and drinking. Tell your doctor if this is a problem for you for example if you have diabetes.

You might have a drink or an injection of contrast medium, or both. Contrast medium is a dye that helps body tissues show up more clearly on the scan.

Before you have the contrast medium, the radiographer asks if you have any medical conditions or allergies. Some people are allergic to the dye.

They also check the results of your most recent blood test. This is to make sure your kidneys are working well and able to flush the contrast medium out of your body. You'll have a blood test before the scan if you haven't had one recently.

What happens?

When you arrive the radiographer might ask you to change into a hospital gown. You should remove jewellery and other metal objects, bra, hair clips around the area being scanned. Metal interferes with the images produced by the scanner.

In the scanning room

When you’re ready, your radiographer or an assistant takes you into the scanning room. A CT scanning machine is large and shaped like a doughnut.

You might have an injection of a type of dye called a contrast medium through a small tube (cannula) in your arm. You may:

  • feel hot and flushed for a minute or two
  • have a metallic taste in your mouth
  • feel like you’re passing urine but you aren’t – this feeling is common and passes quickly

Tell your radiographer if you feel anxious or claustrophobic about having a scan. 

Having the CT scan

You usually lie down on the machine couch on your back. Once you’re in the right position, your radiographer leaves the room to protect them from the radiation. They can see you on a TV screen or through a window from the control room. You can talk to each other through an intercom.

The couch slowly slides backwards and forwards through the hole of the scanner. The machine takes pictures as you move through it. 

The scan is painless but can be uncomfortable because you have to stay still. Tell your radiographer if you’re getting stiff and need to move.

During the scan

You’ll hear a whirring noise from the scanner.

Your radiographer might ask you to hold your breath at times.

When the scan is over, your radiographer comes back into the room and lowers the couch so you can get up.

This 2 minute video shows what happens when you have a CT scan.

After your CT scan

You stay in the department for about 15 to 30 minutes if you had an injection of the dye. This is in case it makes you feel unwell, which is rare.

Your radiographer removes the cannula from your arm before you go home.

You should be able to go home, back to work or the ward soon afterwards. You can eat and drink normally.  

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For more information about tests, contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on the freephone number 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Possible risks

A CT scan is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests it has some possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.

Allergic reaction

Rarely, people have an allergic reaction to the contrast medium. This most often starts with weakness, sweating and difficulty breathing. Tell your radiographer immediately if you feel unwell.

Bruising and swelling

You might get a small bruise around the area where they put the needle in.

There's a risk that the contrast medium will leak outside the vein. This can cause swelling and pain in your hand or arm but it’s rare.

Kidney problems

There is a small risk that the contrast medium can affect your kidneys. Your radiographer checks your most recent blood test results before your scan to make sure your kidneys are working well. 

Radiation

Exposure to radiation during a CT scan can slightly increase your risk of developing cancer in the future. Talk to your doctor if this worries you.

Pregnancy

Pregnant women should only have CT scans in emergencies. Contact the department as soon as you can before the scan if you are pregnant or think that you might be.

Last reviewed: 
23 Oct 2020
Next review due: 
23 Oct 2023
  • Advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) 2009,  Last updated: 2017

  • Iodinated Contrast Media Guideline
    The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists, 2018

  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer
    Springer, 2016

  • 4th ESO–ESMO International Consensus Guidelines for Advanced Breast Cancer
    F Cardoso and others 
    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Volume 29, Pages 1634–1657

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