Breast cancer screening is very important. With more than 250,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S., it’s likely you know several people who have experienced this life-threatening disease.
The purpose of screening for breast cancer is to detect the disease as early as possible. The earlier the diagnosis, the more treatable the disease.
Types of Breast Cancer Screening
- Clinical breast exam – This is part of a physical examination by a doctor or other healthcare provider. The provider will examine the shape, size, and texture of the breasts using the tips of their fingers to check for any lumps or other abnormal findings. The clinical breast exam is typically done during a well woman exam each year.
- Mammography – Mammogram is a low-dose X-ray exam that produces images of the breast tissue. The mammogram machine uses plastic plates to gently flatten the breast to spread the tissue apart and allow for better quality images. A 3D mammogram (breast tomosynthesis) is an imaging test that combines multiple breast X-rays to create a three-dimensional picture of the breast. Mammogram plays an important role in the early detection of breast cancer when it is the most curable. The mammogram takes under 15 minutes and can be mildly uncomfortable.
- Supplemental breast cancer screening – both ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can augment mammogram by spotting breast cancer that may not be visible on a mammogram. Although ultrasound and MRI are not meant to replace mammography, they can be used in conjunction with it in screening selected patients. MRI of the breast can be used if you are at a high risk for breast cancer (e.g., you have a strong family history of the disease). Ultrasound is an alternative if you are at a high risk for breast cancer but are unable to undergo an MRI exam or should not be exposed to X-rays. Ultrasound of the breast is also helpful when screening women with dense breast tissue that makes it harder to find cancer with traditional mammography.
- What about thermography? – It’s a no. Thermography, a type of test that shows patterns of heat on or near the surface of the skin, is not a substitute for proven breast cancer screening. Thermography has not been shown to be an effective standalone test for breast cancer screening.
Advice for Patients Getting Breast Cancer Screening
If you are worried about how a mammogram feels, talk to your health care provider about what you can expect. A mammogram can be uncomfortable for the person being screened because it briefly presses on the breast to spread the breast tissue and increase the clarity of the X-ray image.
Also talk to your health care provider if you have specific questions about mammography, including questions about when and how frequently you should be screened. As a rule, you should also call your health care provider if you notice any change in either of your breasts such as a lump, thickening of or leakage from the nipple, or changes in how the nipple looks.