Breast Cancer: Screening for Early Detection

Breast cancer is the most common cancer you may face as a woman. Finding it early increases your treatment choices and can save your life. Breast cancer can occur at any age, but it is much more likely to happen after age 40 and even more so as you get older. That’s why you should know about breast cancer and what you can do about it.

How do I find breast cancer early?

Here’s some tips, depending on your age:
  • If you are 40 or older:
    • Have a mammogram (x-rays of the breasts) every year for as long as you are in good health. This can show an early breast cancer before it is large enough for you or even a highly skilled doctor or nurse to feel.
    • Have a breast exam by your doctor or nurse every year.
    • Report any breast change to your doctor right away. (Breast self-exam is an option for finding changes.)
  • If you are 20 to 39:
    • Have a breast exam by your doctor or nurse, at least every three years.
    • Report any breast change to your doctor right away. (Breast self-exam is an option for finding changes.)

Some women—because of their family history, a genetic tendency or other factors—may need to have an MRI in addition to a mammogram. Talk to your doctor about your history and whether you should have an MRI at an earlier age.

Concerns Women Have About Breast Cancer and Mammograms

No one in my family has ever had breast cancer, so do I really need to be concerned?

Yes. Your risk is greater if a close relative has had breast cancer. But more than 8 out of every 10 breast cancers occur in women who do not have a family history of invasive breast cancer.

If I’m going to get breast cancer, there’s nothing I can do about it.

Yes, there is. Finding breast cancer early can improve your chances for beating this disease. A mammogram can find breast cancer much earlier than you or your doctor can feel it. When breast cancer is found early, you increase your chances for successful treatment.

Since mammograms are x-rays, isn’t the radiation dangerous?

During the past 20 years, the equipment and how mammograms are done have greatly improved. Today, the level of radiation is almost harmless. In fact, mammograms use less radiation than a dentist’s x-ray.

I heard mammograms hurt and can be embarrassing.

When you get a mammogram, you stand beside the machine and a trained technologist helps place your breast on a plastic plate. A second piece of plastic is placed on top, and for a few seconds, the top piece of plastic is pushed down and flattens the breast. This helps to get a good, clear picture. The technologist usually takes 2 pictures of each breast. When the plates press your breast, this might hurt for a few seconds. Some women say that it is painful; others say that it does not hurt. If you do find that it hurts, it will only last a few seconds. And it could save your life.

If I get a mammogram, I’m afraid that it will find breast cancer.

Only 2 to 4 mammograms out of every 1,000 will lead to a cancer diagnosis. If something is seen on the mammogram, your doctor will order more tests. Remember that more than 80% of lumps or suspicious areas will not be cancer.

I’ve lived this long without getting breast cancer. Why should I bother with a mammogram?

Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. Two out of 3 breast cancers will be diagnosed in women 55 years of age and older.