Make the most of breast cancer screenings

December 2012

Mammogram

First the good news: Breast cancer cases and deaths have been going down, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most doctors believe the drop is a result of better treatments and screenings.

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 that treatment will work. That’s why it pays to keep track of the screenings you can have. Knowing the warning signs of breast cancer can also improve your chances of a cure.

Take charge of your own breast health

First, though, take matters into your own hands (so to speak). 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 report a change to your doctor early on.

You don’t even have to do these self-exams on a regular basis to reap the benefits. Just make sure to do them a week after your period ends. And if you don’t know how to do one, ask your health provider or a nurse to show you how.

Look out for these symptoms

If you spot any of these signs, call your doctor. Don’t panic, though. Other conditions, like an infection, can cause lumps in your breasts. But for your peace of mind, get your doctor to check out these symptoms as soon as possible.

  • Your breast feels different: You may notice a lump or thickening in your breast or armpit.
  • Your breast looks different: One of your breasts may look like an orange peel. Or you notice a change in its size or shape.
  • 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, or blood.
  • You notice swelling or pain in any part of your breast or nipples.

Keep on top of your medical screenings

A mammograms is the best screening test, for women over 40, say experts. So talk to your doctor about scheduling one soon.

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

You’ll usually get a clinical breast exam during a checkup. The doctor or nurse will look and feel your breasts to spot any changes or lumps. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, the ACS recommends getting one at least every three years. If you’re 40 or older, you’ll need one every year.

The screening test that’s been proven to be most effective is the mammogram, according to the CDC. 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 a nurse takes an X-ray.

When’s 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.

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