Screening for breast cancer requires a patient to undergo tests and exams to find cancer when there are no symptoms. These screenings are important because the earlier breast cancer is found, the greater the likelihood that treatment will work, and the greater the chance of survival.
A mammogram is basically an x-ray of the chest. There are two different types of mammograms. Screening mammograms look for signs of cancer in patients who do not have symptoms, while diagnostic mammograms provide a more detailed analysis of the breast area and are used if a screening mammogram shows an abnormal result. Though mammograms cannot find all cancers, they are very good at detecting abnormalities and should be a priority for women over forty.
Clinical Breast Exams
A clinical breast exam (CBE) is a manual examination of the breasts by a medical expert. Along with the breast area, the area under both arms is checked during this exam. This is to ensure that there are no lumps in the lymph nodes, which is a sign that cancer has spread. Women should have a CBE as part of a regular health exam beginning in their twenties.
Breast self-exams (BSEs) can be performed by women in the comfort of their own home. During a BSE, women should visually inspect their breasts for any changes in appearance or texture. Some things to look for are dimpling, dark shadows or bruising, or changes in size or shape. Abnormal findings should be reported to a doctor immediately. The best time to do a BSE are when the breasts are not tender or swollen, which is the case a week or so before menstruation. Although breast self-exams are a good health habit and can be valuable in finding breast cancer early, there are many limitations of this method and they should not be used in place of mammograms in women over forty and clinical breast exams in women over twenty. Click here for detailed instructions and diagrams for performing a breast self-exam.
Women who are at high risk for breast cancer, or who have symptoms of breast cancer, can undergo a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the breast area. Although they can be extremely uncomfortable, they provide the most detailed view of the inside of the breasts and can help doctors determine how far the cancer cells have spread.
It is extremely important for women to have breast exams performed on a yearly basis or more often for high-risk women. The main goal of screening exams is to find breast cancer before it causes symptoms. By the time symptoms arise, the cancer may have already spread past the breast. Early detection has the potential to save thousands of lives each year. Following the recommended guidelines for screenings and self-examinations can greatly increase a woman’s chances of early detection, treatment, and survival.