Breast Cancer Guide: Detecting Cancer

Women should talk with their doctor about factors that can increase their chance of getting breast cancer. Women of any age who are at higher risk for developing this disease should ask their doctor when to start and how often to be checked for breast cancer. Breast cancer screening has been shown to decrease the risk of dying from breast cancer.

Women can take an active part in the early detection of breast cancer by having regularly scheduled screening mammograms and clinical breast exams (breast exams performed by health professionals). Some women also perform breast self-exams.

A screening mammogram is the best tool available for finding breast cancer early, before symptoms appear. A mammogram is a special kind of x-ray. Screening mammograms are used to look for breast changes in women who have no signs of breast cancer.

Mammograms can often detect a breast lump before it can be felt. Also, a mammogram can show small deposits of calcium in the breast. Although most calcium deposits are benign, a cluster of very tiny specks of calcium (called microcalcifications) may be an early sign of cancer.

If an area of the breast looks suspicious on the screening mammogram, additional (diagnostic) mammograms may be needed. Depending on the results, the doctor may advise the woman to have a biopsy.

Although mammograms are the best way to find breast abnormalities early, they do have some limitations. A mammogram may miss some cancers that are present (false negative) or may find things that turn out not to be cancer (false positive). And detecting a tumor early does not guarantee that a woman’s life will be saved. Some fast-growing breast cancers may already have spread to other parts of the body before being detected.

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Nevertheless, studies show that mammograms reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. Most doctors recommend that women in their forties and older have mammograms regularly, every 1 to 2 years.

Some women perform monthly breast self-exams to check for any changes in their breasts. When doing a breast self-exam, it’s important to remember that each woman’s breasts are different, and that changes can occur because of aging, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, or taking birth control pills or other hormones. It is normal for the breasts to feel a little lumpy and uneven. Also, it is common for a woman’s breasts to be swollen and tender right before or during her menstrual period. Women in their forties and older should be aware that a monthly breast self-exam is not a substitute for regularly scheduled screening mammograms and clinical breast exams by a health professional.

Recognizing Symptoms

Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain. In fact, when breast cancer first develops, there may be no symptoms at all. But as the cancer grows, it can cause changes that women should watch for:

  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area;

  • A change in the size or shape of the breast;

  • Nipple discharge or tenderness, or the nipple pulled back (inverted) into the breast;

  • Ridges or pitting of the breast (the skin looks like the skin of an orange); or

  • A change in the way the skin of the breast, areola, or nipple looks or feels (for example, warm, swollen, red, or scaly).

A woman should see her doctor about any symptoms like these. Most often, they are not cancer, but it’s important to check with the doctor so that any problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

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