Breast Cancer Risk & Early Detection

Why is it important to find breast cancer early?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the US. It is also a leading cause of death. With regular checks of the breast, most cancers can be found at an early stage, before they spread to other parts of the body. This is very important because when breast cancer is found early, before it spreads, it can be cured.

Some women have a higher risk than others, but any woman can get breast cancer. All women should be alert and check their breasts regularly.

What are the best ways to detect breast cancer early?

You can do 3 things:

  • Do monthly breast self-exams of your breasts
  • Have regular medical checkups that include a check of your breasts by your health care provider
  • Have regular mammograms, according to your provider's recommendations
Breast Self-Examination

Breast self-exams should be done once a month. If you still menstruate, do it a few days after your period. If you no longer menstruate, do it about the same time each month.

  1. Lie down and put your left arm under your head. This spreads the breast tissue more evenly on your chest. Use your right hand to examine your left breast. With your 3 middle fingers flat, move gently in a small circular motion over the entire area of the breast, checking for any lump, hard knot, or thickening. Use different levels of pressure--light, medium, and firm--to feel breast tissue at different levels in your breast. Then put your right arm under your head. Use your left hand to examine your right breast in the same way you checked your left breast. Be sure to check the whole breast, from your collar bone above your breast and down until you feel only ribs below your breast.
  1. Look at your breasts while standing in front of a mirror with your hands pressing firmly down on your hips. Look for lumps, new differences in size and shape, and swelling or dimpling of the skin.
  1. While standing or sitting, slightly raise one arm, then the other, so you can check your underarm area for lumps.
  1. Squeeze the nipple of each breast gently between your thumb and index finger. Report any discharge or fluid to your health care provider right away.

Exams by your Doctor

Have a breast exam by your health care provider at least every 3 years if you are 20 to 39 years old and every year after the age of 40. Your provider can identify lumps the size of a pea, smaller than a woman can typically find on her own. In addition, a trained examiner can find lumps that are located in areas that are hard for a mammogram to detect, such as near the chest wall.

If you notice a lump in your breast, have it examined by your provider right away.

Mammograms

A mammogram is a special x-ray of the breast. It can show abnormalities that are too small to feel, so it is an excellent way to screen women for early breast cancer. However, although mammograms show most breast cancers, they do not find all cancers. Because of this, breast self-exams and physical exams by your provider are very important. These exams may find cancers that do not show on the mammogram and cancers that develop between mammograms.

You should have a mammogram every 1 to 2 years after age 40, depending on your personal and family history. Ask your provider how often you should have a mammogram.

If you are told that your mammogram is abnormal or that there are changes from your last mammogram, do not panic. It may be just normal tissue, but you will need to have it checked further. This may be done with more mammogram images, an ultrasound scan of the breast, or a needle biopsy, depending on the opinion of the radiologist.

Remember, early detection is your best defense against cancer.

Adult Health Advisor 2006.4; Copyright © 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. Developed by Ann Carter, MD, for McKesson Provider Technologies This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.