Because breast cancer is usually treatable when it is diagnosed in the early stages, most doctors stress the importance of early detection. In many cases, screening patients before symptoms develop can save a woman's life. Depending on their risk factors for developing breast cancer, there are several tests that women can take.
Breast Self-Exams and Breast Awareness
One of the best ways that women can detect any health problems is to be aware of their own body. It is never too early for women to be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel. By knowing what is normal, they will be able to spot any changes sooner. Women are also encouraged to perform breast self-exams monthly, and the best time to perform them is right after the menstrual period has ended. Women with breast implants can also perform self-exams, but they may need to get advice from their doctor on what feels normal. Pregnant and lactating women should also examine their breasts and note any changes that appear to be out of the ordinary. Although it is normal for lactating women to occasionally feel small lumps, they should speak with a doctor if the lumps do not go away. Also, while some tenderness and swelling may be normal for a woman around the time of her menstrual cycle, persistent pain or swelling should be reported to a health care professional. Other breast changes that should be reported include nipple discharge, redness, rough patches on the skin and lumps.
Clinical Breast Exams
A clinical breast exam is usually performed during yearly visits to a health care provider. During the visit, the doctor will carefully examine the breasts and the surrounding area. He will check for any irregularities in shape, size and consistency. He will also look for any lumps in the breasts and under the arms. If the doctor finds any lumps, he will usually be able to tell if they are on the surface or deeper in the breast tissue. During the exam, the doctor will also assist with any questions that a woman may have about performing self-exams at home.
An X-ray of the breast is known as a mammogram. Although the guidelines may vary, the American Cancer Society currently recommends that most women get yearly mammograms after the age of 40. A recent study found that over 65 percent of breast cancers were found by using mammograms. Women may be advised to get a mammogram at an earlier age if they have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Mammograms that are used to look for any signs of cancer in women who have no symptoms are referred to as screening mammograms. During the procedure, a woman's breasts are placed between two flat plates and compressed while the X-ray is taken. For a screening mammogram, usually two pictures are taken of each breast. Women who have breast implants may need to have additional views taken, or they may need to have mammograms done by a facility that has experience screening women with implants.
A diagnostic mammogram may be needed if a woman has noticed changes in her breasts or to further check a problem that is found during a screening mammogram. A woman will have more pictures taken during a diagnostic mammogram, but the pictures are likely to focus on the specific area in question. Because even diagnostic mammograms cannot actually diagnose cancer, a woman may need to have a breast biopsy to further rule out cancer.
The images taken during a mammogram are stored on film. Newer technology uses digital images that are stored on a computer, but this is not the standard practice. The doctor who reads the images will look for calcifications, which are mineral deposits that look like small white spots. Many times, these calcifications are normal. The doctor will also check for any suspicious masses that appear. In many cases, the mass turn out to be a benign cyst, and the doctor can rule out cancer without further testing.
Most health care practitioners recommend that women schedule mammograms right after their menstrual period and not right before. This will help make the experience more comfortable for women who normally experience breast tenderness before their periods. Also, women should not apply any type of deodorant or antiperspirant before the procedure. In some cases, deodorant may show up as calcifications in the picture.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Some women with a high risk for developing breast cancer may be screened using both magnetic resonance imaging and a mammogram. Women may also have an MRI if the results of the mammogram were not clear. In addition, women who currently have breast cancer may need an MRI to get a detailed view of the cancerous area. This technology uses radio waves and magnetic fields to produce a very clear picture of the soft tissues inside the body. Unlike mammograms, there is no radiation involved. However, because an MRI is so sensitive, it often produces false positives, which may lead to unnecessary biopsies and other tests. This is the main reason why an MRI is not used as a diagnostic tool on women with a low risk for cancer.