Breast Cancer Screening

A recommendation that you undergo a screening for breast cancer does not necessarily mean that you have the disease. Rather, screening before symptoms of breast cancer are present is important in enabling doctors to detect and treat it early. Common screening tools include mammograms and breast examinations. Risks are associated with these tools, so it's important to weigh these risks against the possible benefits.

Breast Cancer Screening: An Introduction

Screening for breast cancer before symptoms are present can be important. Screening can help doctors find and treat cancer early. Breast cancer treatment is more likely to be effective when the disease is found early.
You should ask your doctor about when to start breast cancer screening and how often to check for the disease.
It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. These tests are administered when you have no symptoms of breast cancer.
If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to determine if you have cancer (see Breast Cancer Diagnosis).
Your doctor may suggest the following breast cancer screening tests:
  • Screening mammogram
  • Clinical breast exam
  • Breast self-exam.

Using a Mammogram to Screen for Breast Cancer

To find breast cancer early, doctors recommend that:
  • Women in their 40s and older should have mammograms every one to two years. A mammogram is a picture of the breast made with x-rays.
  • Women who are younger than 40 and have risk factors for breast cancer should ask their healthcare provider whether to have mammograms and how often to have them.
Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. They also can show a cluster of tiny specks of calcium. These specks are called microcalcifications. Lumps or specks can be from cancer, precancerous cells, or other conditions. Further tests are needed to find out if abnormal cells are present.
If an abnormal area shows up on your mammogram, you may need to have more x-rays. You also may need a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to tell for sure if cancer is present (see Breast Cancer Diagnosis).
Mammograms are the best tool doctors have to find breast cancer early. However, when used to screen for breast cancer, mammograms are not perfect:
  • A mammogram may miss some cancers. (The result is called a "false-negative.")
  • A mammogram may show things that turn out not to be cancer. (The result is called a "false-positive.")
  • Some fast-growing tumors may grow large or spread to other parts of the body before a mammogram detects them.
  • Mammograms (as well as dental x-rays and other routine x-rays) use small doses of radiation. The risk of any harm is slight, but repeated x-rays could cause problems. The benefits nearly always outweigh the risk. You should talk with your healthcare provider about the need for each x-ray. You should also ask for shields to protect parts of your body that are not in the picture.
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Information on Breast Cancer

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