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Understanding the Role of Pathology In Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Care

Kimberly W. Sanford, MD, MASCP, MT(ASCP)

President, American Society for Clinical Pathology

Waiting for test results is never an easy time. You feel like your health is hanging in the balance, and the next words out of your doctor’s mouth could change the course of your life forever. 

As technology and treatments have advanced over the past decade, a breast cancer diagnosis isn’t what it used to be. We know so much more now about the different stages and types of breast cancer than we did even 10 years ago. 

You may not be familiar with the pathology department — not many patients are. Or you may know it only as the place your vials of blood or swabs are sent for testing. This is true, and it’s where we run the tests to help figure out if there is an issue with your health. For breast cancer patients, the laboratory is also where tubes of your blood samples are sent to check for biomarkers. 

Clinical laboratory scientists analyze substances in blood that can signal cancer, your propensity for developing cancer, or the progression of disease. And when a sample of tumor is sent to the laboratory, the pathologist examines tumor cells under the microscope, sometimes using special staining techniques to determine exactly what type and stage of cancer you have. This is done by analyzing thin slices of tumors under a microscope. These test results help your pathologist determine your diagnosis, and ultimately your course of treatment. 

It’s important to remember that these tests are all moving parts of a diagnosis and are performed by men and women with incredibly refined skill sets. The laboratory is responsible for approximately 70 percent of the decisions made during the course of a patient’s care. The men and women in the laboratory, and the work they do, are critical to patient health. We are a part of your care team, and while there is no one-size-fits-all scenario when it comes to breast cancer, the laboratory is another vital resource for you in responding to your diagnosis. 

While the laboratory has always played a central role in care, the recent evolution toward patient-centric care across healthcare has encouraged pathology teams to take a more visible role with patients. We can be invaluable partners for patients with cancer, and we encourage patients to involve us — to ask questions to better understand what test results mean for life going forward and diagnosis.

We are stronger when we work together, and pathology and medical laboratory scientists are here as a partner in your health, every step of the way. 

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