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Can Breast Cancer be Found Early? What are the American Cancer Sociery Recommendations?

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.

American Cancer Society 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.

 

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