You have a better chance of surviving breast cancer if your doctor finds and treats it early. The best way to detect breast cancer early is to be screened regularly. This isn't possible for many cancers, but it is with breast cancer. Screening, however, doesn't guarantee that you won't get cancer or die from it, especially if it's found after symptoms develop.
Screening for breast cancer can include a combination of breast self-exams (BSE), clinical breast exams (CBE), and mammography. These three can complement each other, improving your chances of catching cancer early. Although BSE is helpful, its role in detecting cancer early is limited. Here are descriptions of each.
Mammography is a low-dose x-ray of the breasts to find changes that may occur. It is the most common imaging technique. Mammography can detect cancer or other problems before a lump becomes large enough to be felt, as well as assist in the diagnosis of other breast problems. However, a biopsy is required to confirm the presence of cancer.
A diagnostic mammogram may be required when a questionable area is found during a screening mammogram.
A mammogram detects tumors and calcium deposits in the breast. Most calcium deposits are benign (not cancer). However, a cluster of very tiny specks of calcium, called microcalcifications, can be an early sign of breast cancer. If your mammogram shows anything abnormal, you may need more tests.
Although a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer early, it may not always detect cancer. And sometimes a mammogram may detect an abnormality that turns out not to be cancer, called a false positive. Some people worry about the radiation. But the radiation levels are about the same as those you'd be exposed to during a flight from New York to California.
A breast examination by a physician or nurse trained to evaluate breast problems should be part of a woman's physical examination. The ACS recommends:
Between the ages of 20 and 39, women should have a clinical breast examination by a health professional every three years.
After age 40, women should have a breast examination by a health professional every year.
A physical breast examination by a physician or nurse is very similar to the procedures used for breast self-examination.
Breast self-exams are an option for women 20 and older as a means of familiarizing themselves with their breasts so they can notice changes more easily. BSE should be done regularly at the same time every month. Regular BSE teaches you to know how your breasts normally feel so that you can more readily detect any change. Changes may include:
- Development of a lump
- A discharge other than breast milk
- Swelling of the breast, skin irritation or dimpling nipple abnormalities (i.e., pain, redness, scaliness, turning inward)
If you notice any of these changes, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible for evaluation.