Screenings and self-exams key to early detection

A nurse prepares a patient for a mamogram.

First the good news: Breast cancer cases and deaths have been going down, according to the American Cancer Society.1 Most doctors believe the decrease is a result of early detection and better treatments.

It’s no surprise that screenings play a big role in breast cancer survival. The earlier you detect breast cancer — while the tumor is small and hasn’t had a chance to spread — the better your chances for successful treatment. That’s why it pays to keep track of the screenings you can have. Knowing the warning signs of breast cancer can lead to early detection which improves your chances of a successful treatment.

Take charge of your own breast health

Examine your breasts yourself, starting in your 20s. Even though self-exams don’t play a big role in cancer detection, there are big benefits. For one, you'll become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. That way, you’ll be able to notice a change and be able to report it to your doctor early on.

You don’t even have to do these self-exams once a month to reap the benefits.2 Ask your healthcare practitioner to show you the proper method for a breast self-exam.

Look out for these symptoms

If you spot any of these signs, call your doctor. Don’t panic, though. There are other conditions that may cause these symptoms. But for your peace of mind and your health, get your doctor to check out these symptoms as soon as possible.

  1. Your breast feels different: You may notice a lump or thickening in your breast or armpit.
  2. Your breast looks different: One of your breasts may look like an orange peel. Or you notice a change in its size or shape.
  3. You see a change in your nipple: It may be red, sore, itchy or scaly. Or your nipple leaks a fluid other than breast milk, like blood.
  4. You notice swelling or pain in any part of your breast or nipples.

Keep on top of your medical screenings

There are two medical screenings recommended by health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the American Cancer Society (ACS): clinical breast exams and mammograms.

You’ll usually get a clinical breast exam at your annual checkup. The doctor or nurse will examine your breasts to detect any visible changes or lumps. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, the ACS recommends getting one at least every 3 years. If you’re 40 or older, you’ll need one every year. However, your healthcare practitioner will advise you on the best screening option for you.

The screening test that’s been proven to be most effective is the mammogram, according to the CDC.3 A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that allows doctors to spot any changes or lumps before you can feel them. The whole procedure lasts about 20 minutes. It can be uncomfortable, since each of your breasts has to be squished between two plates before an X-ray is taken.

When is the best time to start getting mammograms? The CDC recommends them every other year for women between 50 and 74. If you are between 40 and 49, talk to your health provider. Your doctor may recommend you have a mammogram, especially if you have other risk factors.

This information is for educational purposes only and does not replace treatment or advice from a healthcare professional. If you have questions, please talk with your doctor.


  1. “Cancer Facts and Figures: Death Rate Down 25% Since 1991,” American Cancer Society, last accessed July 17, 2018,, opens new window
  2. “Breast Cancer,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed July 17, 2018,, opens new window
  3. “What is a mamogram,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed July 17, 2018,, opens new window