Doctors recommend three screenings for those at risk for breast cancer. They are screening mammograms, breast exam by a medical professional, and self-exams of the breasts. The National Cancer Institute has set specific guidelines and recommendations for how often these three screenings should be done.
Screening mammograms are recommended for women in their 40’s or older every one to two years. If a woman is under 40 but has other risk factors for developing breast cancer, their health care professional can help them decide how often they should have this screening. Mammograms will often show a small lump even before it is felt, or how tiny specks of calcium. These can be precancerous and further tests are needed to discover if there are any abnormal cells present. If you do have a lump that shows up on a mammogram, your doctor may ask you to have further tests. A more complex mammogram, ultrasound, or a biopsy might be suggested. The only way to tell if the cells are cancerous is by having a biopsy. Biopsies are performed with small, thin needles, larger needles, or by a small incision made in the affected area. A pathologist will then examine the cells under a microscope to find out if the extracted cells are cancerous.
Mammograms are the best tool doctors have in discovering breast cancer, but they are not foolproof. A mammogram can give a false negative, false positive, or may not detect some cancers at all. These mammograms have little risk because of the low dosage of radiation used. Shields can be provided to protect other areas of your body if you are requested to have several mammograms. Normally, there is a small risk of damage from a mammogram.
Clinical breast exams are performed regularly when you have your yearly physical. Your health care provider will look at your breasts to discover if there are any size or color abnormalities. They will check for skin discoloration, rashes, and other abnormal signs. The nipples may be squeezed to check if fluid (other than milk) is present. During the exam, your doctor may ask you to raise your arms above your head, put your hands on your hips, or let them dangle at your sides. The breast exam consists of using fingers to check the entire breast, under the arm, and around the collarbone for any lumps that can be felt. The lump normally will be the size of a pea before it can be felt. Lymph nodes are also checked now, to check for swelling or abnormalities.
A self-breast exam should be done monthly to check for any changes or lumps in your breasts. You should remember that as you age, your breasts will start to change shape, and other hormonal changes can affect them during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, or if you are taking birth control pills. The National Cancer Institute recommends you do a self-exam every month at the same time of each month. It has been suggested you choose your birthday as the date for performing your self-exam each month.