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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Breast Cancer and Ductal Lavage

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Ductal lavage is a screening tool used to detect breast cancer in women at high risk of breast cancer. During ductal lavage, cells are collected from the milk ducts of the breast for analysis. The procedure is used to identify precancerous cells, called atypical cells. Ductal lavage currently is performed only on women who have multiple breast cancer risk factors to try to detect breast cancer before it starts.

Ductal lavage works on the premise that most breast cancers (about 95%) develop in cells that line the milk ducts of the breast. Cancer usually begins in one duct and may be confined to that duct if caught early. Early diagnosis makes treatment more effective and increases survival.

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By the time breast cancer is detected, however, it often has progressed beyond a single duct. Experts estimate that it takes eight to 10 years for cancer to grow from one cell to a mass large enough to be detected on a mammogram -- a size of one cm that contains about one billion cells.

Doctors hope that performing ductal lavage as a screening tool in women at high risk for breast cancer may catch the disease early when it is most treatable.

How Does Ductal Lavage Work?

Ductal lavage is a minimally invasive procedure that may be performed in a doctor's office or outpatient center. It is performed in three steps:

  1. An anesthetic cream is applied to numb the nipple area. Gentle suction is used to withdraw a small amount of fluid from the milk ducts. This is done to locate the opening of the ducts on the nipple's surface and to identify ducts to be tested. Ducts that do not produce fluid generally are not tested with the lavage procedure, since atypical cells are more commonly found in ducts that produce fluid. Not all women are able to produce fluid with this test. If fluid is not made, the test is not continued any further.
  2. If fluid is made, a hair-thin catheter (small tube) is inserted into the natural opening of the duct. Additional anesthetic is delivered into the duct. A saline (salt and water) solution is then infused through the catheter to rinse the duct, which loosens cells from the duct lining. The solution containing the loosened cells is withdrawn through the catheter. The word "lavage" is French for "wash" or "rinse."
  3. The sample is sent to the laboratory for analysis to determine if the cells are normal or abnormal (atypical cells). Women with atypical cells have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
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