Breast Cancer Screening: What to Know

Posted by Jason Wilson, RN, MBA

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Oct 23, 2017 9:30:00 AM

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this post explores the topic of breast cancer screening and other facts about breast cancer you need to know.

Is breast cancer screening always the right answer? Is it important at a specific age or with specific risk factors? In this article, we explore the importance of breast cancer screening.

Though your risk for breast cancer can be reduced by living a healthy lifestyle, there is still no guarantee you won't develop the disease. Therefore, regular screening as recommended by your doctor will give you the best opportunity to detect the disease early and begin treatment if required.

There are several breast cancer screening options you should be aware of. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages, and it's important to weigh the risks and benefits with your doctor to make sure you're receiving the best screening for you.

Breast Self-Exams

Breast self-examinations are the first step in breast cancer screening.

You own awareness is the first step toward detecting breast cancer. You can do a breast self-exam on a monthly basis to look for changes in the size or shape of your breasts or to the skin or nipples, and to feel for lumps. Of course, not all women experience visible changes to the breast or any other symptoms of breast cancer. But if you do notice such changes, contact your doctor for further testing. As you get older, your risk of breast cancer increases, so you do not want to rely on the self-exam alone for breast cancer screening.

Breast Exam

Your doctor can also perform a manual exam to check for lumps. He or she may notice irregularities you missed.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an x-ray of your breasts which can be used for screening and diagnosis. Age 40 is typically mentioned as the age to start getting mammograms, but "professional groups differ on their recommendations." Sometimes, women with a family history of breast cancer or multiple risk factors get mammograms before age 40.

Breast cancer screening can be done by a physician on a routine basis.

Ultrasound

As Mayo Clinic explains: "Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of structures deep within the body. Ultrasound may be used to determine whether a new breast lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst."

Biopsy

A sample of your breast tissue is sent to the lab for testing to determine for sure whether or not cancer is present. A biopsy is generally done after suspicious lumps or images have been found via other forms of screening.

MRI

A breast MRI is often used in conjunction with other screening methods for a more thorough image of the breast. Women who are at high risk of breast cancer may have MRIs more often.

Risks vs Benefits of Breast Cancer Screening

Breast cancer screening can include both risks and benefits.

There are some risks that come with screening, so you and your doctor have to determine whether the benefits of the tests outweigh the potential risks. These risks may include:

  • False Positives: The tests might indicate cancer when, in fact, you don't have cancer. This can lead to additional unnecessary testing and stress.
  • False Negatives: Sometimes, your breasts appear healthy via the testing even though cancer is present. This could be because the tumor is small or obscured. In a case like this, you might ignore symptoms because the test indicated nothing was wrong.
  • Radiation: Mammograms do expose you to a low dose of radiation. For young women with no risk factors, it might not be worth it; for older women with several risk factors, the minimal radiation exposure is often worth it for the information a mammogram can provide.
  • Discomfort: Since the breasts are pressed between two plates during a mammogram, there can be some pain or discomfort.

Early Detection Is Key

Early detection is key in breast cancer screening.

Still, it remains true that early detection is key for surviving breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, "The 5-year relative survival rate for women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer is close to 100%." Stages 0 and I are the very earliest stages of cancer, when the tumors are small and have not spread. You and your doctor must determine whether each type of test is necessary and worth the risks. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a great time to schedule breast cancer screenings. Some clinics even offer discounts and incentives for breast cancer screenings in October!

Take charge of your breast health: speak with your doctor about what type of screening is right for you.

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