An Early Detection Plan
Beginning at age 20: Performing breast self-exams and looking for any signs of change.
Age 20 to 39: Scheduling clinical breast exams every three years.
By the age of 40: Having a baseline mammogram and annual clinical breast exams.
Ages 40 to 49: Having a mammogram every one to two years depending on previous findings.
Ages 50 and older: Having a mammogram every year.
All Ages: — Recording personal exams, mammograms and doctors’
appointments on a calendar or in a detailed file.
— Maintaining a healthy weight, following a low-fat diet, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption
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Early Detection & Screening
Can Breast Cancer Be found Early?
Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease, like cancer, in people who do not have any symptoms. The goal of screening exams, such as mammograms, is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms. Breast cancers that are found because they can be felt tend to be larger and are more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In contrast, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be small and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are important factors in predicting the prognosis (outlook) for a woman with this disease.
Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer save many thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their health care providers took advantage of these tests. Following the American Cancer Society’s guidelines for the early detection of breast cancer improves the chances that breast cancer can be diagnosed at an early stage and treated successfully.
Pink Campaigns recommendations for early breast cancer detection
Women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
- Current evidence supporting mammograms is even stronger than in the past. In particular, recent evidence has confirmed that mammograms offer substantial benefit for women in their 40s. Women can feel confident about the benefits associated with regular mammograms for finding cancer early. However, mammograms also have limitations. A mammogram will miss some cancers, and it sometimes leads to follow up of findings that are not cancer, including biopsies.
- Women should be told about the benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked with regular screening. Mammograms can miss some cancers. But despite their limitations, they remain a very effective and valuable tool for decreasing suffering and death from breast cancer.
- Mammograms for older women should be based on the individual, her health, and other serious illnesses, such as congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and moderate-to-severe dementia. Age alone should not be the reason to stop having regular mammograms. As long as a woman is in good health and would be a candidate for treatment, she should continue to be screened with a mammogram.
Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) as part of a periodic (regular) health exam by a health professional, at least every 3 years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health professional every year.
- CBE is a complement to mammograms and an opportunity for women and their doctor or nurse to discuss changes in their breasts, early detection testing, and factors in the woman’s history that might make her more likely to have breast cancer.
- There may be some benefit in having the CBE shortly before the mammogram. The exam should include instruction for the purpose of getting more familiar with your own breasts. Women should also be given information about the benefits and limitations of CBE and breast self-exam (BSE). Breast cancer risk is very low for women in their 20s and gradually increases with age. Women should be told to promptly report any new breast symptoms to a health professional.
Breast self-exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s. Women should be told about the benefits and limitations of BSE. Women should report any breast changes to their health professional right away.
- Research has shown that BSE plays a small role in finding breast cancer compared with finding a breast lump by chance or simply being aware of what is normal for each woman. Some women feel very comfortable doing BSE regularly (usually monthly after their period) which involves a systematic step-by-step approach to examining the look and feel of their breasts. Other women are more comfortable simply looking and feeling their breasts in a less systematic approach, such as while showering or getting dressed or doing an occasional thorough exam.
- Sometimes, women are so concerned about “doing it right” that they become stressed over the technique. Doing BSE regularly is one way for women to know how their breasts normally look and feel and to notice any changes. The goal, with or without BSE, is to report any breast changes to a doctor or nurse right away.
- Women who choose to do BSE should have their BSE technique reviewed during their physical exam by a health professional. It is okay for women to choose not to do BSE or not to do it on a regular schedule. However, by doing the exam regularly, you get to know how your breasts normally look and feel and you can more readily detect any signs or symptoms if a change occurs, such as development of a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk. Should you notice any changes you should see your health care provider as soon as possible for evaluation. Remember that most of the time, however, these breast changes are not cancer.
Women at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get an MRI and a mammogram every year.
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
- Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, but have not had genetic testing themselves
- Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years
- Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with one of these syndromes
The Pink Campaigns recommends against MRI screening for women whose lifetime risk of breast cancer is less than 15%.
There is not enough evidence to make a recommendation for or against yearly MRI screening for women who have a moderately increased risk of breast cancer (a lifetime risk of 15% to 20% according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history) or who may be at increased risk of breast cancer based on certain factors, such as:
- Having a personal history of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH), or atypical lobular hyperplasia (ALH)
- Having dense breasts (“extremely” or “heterogeneously” dense) as seen on a mammogram
If MRI is used, it should be in addition to, not instead of, a screening mammogram. This is because while an MRI is a more sensitive test (it’s more likely to detect cancer than a mammogram), it may still miss some cancers that a mammogram would detect.
For most women at high risk, screening with MRI and mammograms should begin at age 30 years and continue for as long as a woman is in good health. But because the evidence is limited about the best age at which to start screening, this decision should be based on shared decision making between patients and their health care providers, taking into account personal circumstances and preferences.
Several risk assessment tools, with names like the Gail model, the Claus model, and the Tyrer-Cuzick model, are available to help health professionals estimate a woman’s breast cancer risk. These tools give approximate, rather than precise, estimates of breast cancer risk based on different combinations of risk factors and different data sets.
Because the different tools use different risk factors to estimate risk, they may give different risk estimates for the same woman. For example, the Gail model bases its risk estimates on certain personal risk factors, like current age, age at menarche (first menstrual period) and history of prior breast biopsies, along with any history of breast cancer in first-degree relatives. In contrast, the Claus model estimates risk based only on family history of breast cancer in both first and second-degree relatives. These 2 models could easily give different estimates for the same person.
Risk assessment tools (like the Gail model, for example) that are not based mainly on family history are not appropriate to use with the ACS guidelines to decide if a woman should have MRI screening. The use of any of the risk assessment tool and its results should be discussed by a woman and her doctor.
It is recommended that women who get screening MRI do so at a facility that can do an MRI-guided breast biopsy at the same time if needed. Otherwise, the woman will have to have a second MRI exam at another facility at the time of biopsy.
There is no evidence right now that MRI is an effective screening tool for women at average risk. MRI is more sensitive than mammograms, but it also has a higher false-positive rate (it is more likely to find something that turns out not to be cancer). This would lead to unneeded biopsies and other tests in many of these women, which can lead to a lot of worry and anxiety.
The American Cancer Society believes the use of mammograms, MRI (in women at high risk), clinical breast exams, and finding and reporting breast changes early, according to the recommendations outlined above, offers women the best chance to reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer. This combined approach is clearly better than any one exam or test alone.
Without question, a breast physical exam without a mammogram would miss the opportunity to detect many breast cancers that are too small for a woman or her doctor to feel but can be seen on mammograms. Although mammograms are a sensitive screening method, a small percentage of breast cancers do not show up on mammograms but can be felt by a woman or her doctors. For women at high risk of breast cancer, like those with BRCA gene mutations or a strong family history, both MRI and mammogram exams of the breast are recommended