The terminal monosaccharide of glycoconjugates on a eukaryotic cell surface is typically a sialic acid (Neu5Ac). Increased sialylation usually indicates progression and poor prognosis of most carcinomas. Here, we utilize two human mammary epithelial cell lines, HB4A (breast normal cells) and T47D (breast cancer cells), as a model system to demonstrate differential surface glycans when treated with sialic acid under nutrient deprivation. Under a starved condition, sialic acid treatment of both cells resulted in increased activities of α2→3/6 sialyltransferases as demonstrated by solid phase assay using lectin binding. However, a very strong Maackia amurensis agglutinin I (MAL-I) staining on the membrane of sialic acid-treated T47D cells was observed, indicating an increase of Neu5Acα2→3Gal on the cell surface. To our knowledge, this is a first report showing the utility of lectins, particularly MAL-I, as a means to discriminate between normal and cancer cells after sialic acid treatment under nutrient deprivation. This method is sensitive and allows selective detection of glycan sialylation on a cancer cell surface.