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Breast Cancer: Early Detection

You have a better chance of surviving breast cancer if your doctor finds and treats it early, when it’s small and hasn’t spread. The best way to find breast cancer early is to be screened regularly. Screening means being checked before you have any symptoms. Screening isn't possible for many kinds of cancer, but it is with breast cancer. Screening doesn't guarantee that you won't get cancer or die from it, especially if it's found after it has spread. But regular screening may help find the cancer earlier. This is called early detection.

How is screening for breast cancer done?

Screening for breast cancer in women of average risk can include:

  • Breast self-awareness. In the past, a breast self-exam (BSE) was recommended. It was a detailed method of examining your breasts once a month. Most experts now advise breast self-awareness instead. This means having a sense of what's normal for your breasts. If you notice even small changes in how they look or feel, you then contact see your healthcare provider right away.

  • Clinical breast exam (CBE). The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advises CBEs every 1 to 3 years for all women in their 20s and 30s. ACOG advises CBEs every year for women 40 and older. Other experts don't agree that there's enough evidence to say there's a clear benefit of CBEs for women age 40 and older. Women should talk with a doctor about their risk factors and decide whether to have a CBE.

  • Mammography. A mammogram is a kind of X-ray used to help find breast tumors before they can be felt or cause other symptoms. During the test, your breast is pressed between 2 plastic plates that flatten and spread the tissue. Very low levels of radiation are used to take a picture of the inside of your breast. Many facilities have digital mammography. This displays results on a computer instead of on film. The test can be uncomfortable, but it only lasts a few moments. There are more details about mammograms below.

  • Breast MRI.  An MRI uses magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed pictures of the inside of the breast. Before the MRI, a contrast dye may be put into your blood through a vein. This helps to better outline the breast tissue and possible tumors. MRI is only used to screen women who are at a high risk for breast cancer based on factors, such as family history or genes.

These screening methods can improve your chances of finding cancer early. Women at high risk for breast cancer may be advised to start breast cancer screening at a younger age. They may also be advised to have an MRI along with their routine mammograms. For some women with dense breast tissue, ultrasound may be done along with mammograms.

More about mammograms

A mammogram detects tumors and calcium deposits in the breast. Most calcium deposits are not cancer. But a cluster of very tiny specks of calcium (microcalcifications) can be an early sign of breast cancer. If your mammogram shows anything abnormal, you may need more tests.

A mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer early. But it may not always detect cancer. And in some cases, it may find an abnormality that turns out not to be cancer. This is called a false positive.

The benefits and limits of a mammogram vary. They’re based on factors such as age and personal risk. Experts have different advice for who should have mammograms.

  • U.S. Preventive Task Force (USPSTF). This group advises screening every 2 years for women age 50 to 74. Women have the choice to start getting mammograms every 2 years starting at age 40. This should be discussed with a healthcare provider.

  • American Cancer Society (ACS). This group advises yearly screening for all women ages 45 to 54, then a choice of screening every 1 or 2 years for women age 55 and older. Women ages 40 to 45 have the option to start screening.

  •   American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). This group advises that starting at age 40, women should have the option of getting mammograms every 1 or 2 years. All women should start at age 50. Mammograms every 1 or 2 years should be done until age 75. At that time, a woman should talk to her doctor about whether to continue screening.

All women should talk with their doctor about their personal risk factors and the pros and cons of testing before deciding when to start and how often to get a mammogram.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Preeti Sudheendra MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2020
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