Studies show that early detection through breast cancer screening can lead to better outcomes of cancer treatment. Breast cancer screening recommendations depend on your age, health condition and what risk factors you have for breast cancer. 

When should you start testing for breast cancer?

Generally, women should begin regular testing for breast cancer sometime between the ages of 45 and 55.

Various expert groups that publish breast cancer screening guidelines offer differing recommendations for the starting age to begin breast cancer screening. However, women of all ages should weigh the benefits of breast cancer testing and screening with their doctors. Your long-term care doctor is uniquely able to recommend the right age to start testing for breast cancer based on your health and family history.

How often do you need to get mammograms?

Once you and your doctor determine that you should begin regular screening mammograms, you should plan to continue getting a mammogram every one to two years until you reach 75 years of age. 

What are mammograms?

Mammograms are the most commonly performed breast cancer screening tests. They are imaging tests that produce pictures of breast tissue. Doctors can examine the pictures to look for abnormalities that could indicate the presence of cancer.

An abnormal mammogram doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer. Mammograms are just one tool used to detect and diagnose cancer. If an area of concern is found on a mammogram, your doctor will likely order additional tests and procedures. These may include:

  • Biopsy to remove fluid or tissue from the breast and study it under a microscope
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests to take more detailed pictures of the breast tissue
  • Blood work to measure your blood cell counts and look for substances produced by cancerous breast cells

What happens during a mammogram?

During a mammogram, you typically stand in front of a specially designed x-ray machine. One of your breasts is placed on a platform and then compressed between two plates. You may feel some pressure or discomfort, but the compression isn’t harmful.

Once you’re in the right position, the technician will use the x-ray machine to take pictures of your breasts. It usually takes 20 to 30 seconds to capture the necessary images. Then, you change sides, so the technician can take pictures of your other breast. Most mammogram appointments take 30 minutes or less.

After the mammogram is over, the images will be reviewed by a radiologist, a doctor who specializes in interpreting medical imaging tests.

What are the types of mammograms?

The two main types of screening mammograms are 2D mammograms and 3D mammograms.

2D mammograms

Also called a conventional digital mammogram, a 2D mammogram gives your doctor two-dimensional images of your breasts. Most often, the screening test includes two images of each breast: one taken from the top and one taken from the bottom.

3D mammograms

Also known as a digital breast tomosynthesis, a 3D mammogram creates a three-dimensional model of each of your breasts. To create this model, the x-ray machine captures multiple images of each of your breasts from different angles.

A 3D mammogram may make it easier to locate and diagnose small tumors. Because the images they produce are more detailed, 3D mammograms may also cut down on the likelihood of false negatives that require further testing. However, the expert groups that publish breast cancer screening guidelines don’t recommend one type of mammogram over the other.

What is a diagnostic mammogram?

A diagnostic mammogram is a mammogram performed when there is a suspicion that a patient has breast cancer. Your doctor may order a diagnostic mammogram if you:

  • Locate a lump
  • Are experiencing chronic pain that doesn’t have a known cause
  • Experience nipple thickening or discharge
  • Observe a change in the size or shape of your breasts
  • Have any other signs of breast cancer

Sometimes, diagnostic mammograms include an ultrasound. An ultrasound is an imaging test that sends sound waves through the body to produce highly detailed pictures of tissue.

What other types of tests may be done for breast cancer screening?

Mammograms are the most common breast cancer screening test, but doctors may recommend additional tests like clinical breast exams, self exams, MRIs and genetic testing.

Clinical breast exams

During a clinical breast exam, a doctor feels your breasts with their hands to see if there are any lumps or abnormalities. Often, OB/GYNs perform the exams as a part of a routine pelvic exam.

ACOG is the only expert group that recommends clinical breast exams in its guidelines, recommending that doctors offer them to women annually up until age 74. A clinical breast exam is not harmful and only takes a few minutes, but there isn’t much evidence to prove that it significantly increases the likelihood of cancer detection in women who are receiving mammograms. Experts generally caution against using clinical breast exams as the sole screening test for breast cancer.

Breast self-exams

A breast self-exam is a physical examination and visual inspection of your breasts that you perform at home. Regularly feeling and looking for changes in your breasts may help you spot abnormalities and seek the necessary care—but remember that lumps and other changes aren’t always indications of cancer.

MRIs

Magnetic resonance imaging tests, or MRIs, may be used along with mammograms to screen for cancer in women at high risk or those who have dense breast tissue. Additionally, your doctor may order an MRI if a mammogram detects an abnormality.

Genetic testing

Genetic testing involves analyzing your genetic makeup. While it doesn’t screen for cancer, genetic testing can determine if you have genetic variations that could put you at a higher risk for breast cancer. If your doctor knows you have these genes, they may recommend more frequent breast cancer screening tests and provide you with tips on lifestyle changes you can make to lower the likelihood of developing cancer in the future.

How Forward delivers state-of-the-art cancer screening and preventive care

Our doctor-led Cancer Prevention program focuses on reducing your lifetime risk for cancer and improving treatment outcomes through early detection. The program begins with a comprehensive screening and analysis using state-of-the art technology, genetic testing and blood work. 

We use the information gathered during the detailed evaluation to assess your individualized risk for breast cancer and the three other most commonly diagnosed types of cancer among women: lung, colon and skin. Then, we put together an individualized plan to mitigate some of these risk factors. By becoming your long-term doctor, we deliver ongoing support and biometric monitoring to help you achieve your health goals.

No long waits. No surprise bills. No copays — ever.

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