Screenings and self-exams key to early detection

A nurse prepares a patient for a mamogram.

Breast cancer cases and deaths have been going down in recent years, 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 periodically. Even though opinions vary on the value of self-exams in cancer detection, 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.2

Look out for these symptoms

If you feel any lumps, pain or changes in the size of your breasts, 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.

Keep on top of your medical screenings

The American Cancer Society’s 2017 guidelines3 are for women at average risk for breast cancer. For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk based on the following criteria:

  • if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer
  • If she doesn’t have strong family history of breast cancer
  • If she doesn’t have a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer (such as in a BRCA gene)
  • If she has not had chest radiation therapy before the age of 30

Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.

Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.

Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health.

Talk to your doctor for specific recommendations on screenings.

Recommendations for women at high risk

The recommendations are slightly different for women who are at high risk for breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends these women get an MRI, opens new window and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30. This includes women who:

  • Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of about 20% to 25% or greater, according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history (see below)
  • Have a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, opens new window (based on having had genetic testing)
  • Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, and have not had genetic testing themselves
  • Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years old
  • Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with 1 of these syndromes

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.

Sources:

  1. “Cancer Facts and Figures: Death Rate Down 25% Since 1991,” American Cancer Society, last accessed Sept. 10, 2019, https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/cancer-facts-and-figures-death-rate-down-25-since-1991.html, opens new window,
  2. “Breast Cancer,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed Sept. 10, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/screening.htm, opens new window,
  3. “Recommendations for the early detection of breast cancer,” American Cancer Society, last accessed Sept. 9, 2019, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection/american-cancer-society-recommendations-for-the-early-detection-of-breast-cancer.html, opens new window,