Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

By:    Published: July 27, 2012

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Breast cancer is the second most common cancer and one of the leading causes of cancer death among women in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 210,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and over 40,000 women died from& breast cancer in 2008 alone. Needless to say, it’s important for all women to be aware of breast cancer screening guidelines, and tests available for this type of cancer. This article details the various screening tests used for detecting breast cancer as well as the guidelines for when and where women should receive these screenings.

Types Of Screening Tests

There are several types of screening tests used for the detection of breast cancer. These tests include:

  • Mammograms: A mammogram is an X-ray photograph of the breast. This type of screening test is considered to be the most important tool in screening for breast cancer. It’s also used to diagnose, evaluate and follow individuals who have had breast cancer. The mammogram, which has been in use for about 40 years, is safe and reasonably accurate at detecting breast cancer. According to BreastCancer.org, mammograms lower the risk of dying from breast cancer by 35 percent in women over the age of 50.
  • Clinical breast exam: This is a careful manual examination performed by a doctor or health professional. The purpose of these exams is to look for any lumps, thickening, asymmetry or other abnormalities in the breasts. In about 20 percent of cases, breast cancers are found in a physical exam and not seen in a mammogram.
  • Breast self-exam: Also known as a BSE, this is an examination of your own breasts. Though it is considered an “optional” screening tool, it has helped many women detect breast cancer in its earlier stages. Keep in mind that BSEs have not been found to decrease the risk of dying from breast cancer, so even if you do this exam regularly you should still get mammograms and clinical breast exams once you reach the appropriate age.

There are other breast cancer screening tests that are currently being studied in clinical trials, such as tissue sampling and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, these are not endorsed as recommended screening tests for breast cancer as of this time, so use the recommendations for mammograms and clinical breast exams to protect yourself.

When To Get Screened

Generally, women who are 40 years old or older are advised to receive a mammogram every year. However, those with a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer should consider beginning yearly mammograms even earlier. This is often the case for women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer as well as for those who have had radiation treatment to the chest. Women who fall into these categories often start receiving yearly mammograms around age 30. Talk to your doctor to determine the age at which you should begin receiving mammograms.

Clinical breast exams are also recommended as part of a regular health screening regimen. These exams are recommended for women in their 20s and 30s as part of a periodic health exam, preferably every three years at a minimum, while women aged 40 or older should receive a clinical breast exam every year. Women who want to do breast self-exams should try to do them once a month to familiarize themselves with their breasts’ normal look and feel. (For more information on yearly exams for women, read Routine Physical Exams For Women.)

In some cases, there may be extenuating circumstances which cause a woman to seek out a mammogram or clinical breast exam before her scheduled screening test. Contact your doctor to schedule a breast cancer screening test as soon as possible if you detect any lumps, thickening, asymmetry or other abnormalities in your breasts.

Where To Get Screened

Many women can get a clinical breast exam from their gynecologist or from their personal physician. Mammograms are usually scheduled for separate appointments and often at a separate facility. Women with health insurance can often receive a recommendation from their doctor or their insurance company as to which mammography center they should use.

Fortunately, there are more options available today for women who are uninsured or whose health insurance does not cover mammograms. Many local health clinics will have recommendations for low-cost mammography in the area. These are sometimes offered through mobile clinics or freestanding centers. Regardless of where you receive your mammogram, make sure the facility is accredited by the American College of Radiology (ACR).

If you need help finding a certified mammography provider, contact the National Cancer Institute (1-800-4-CANCER) or the American College of Radiology (1-800-227-5463).

Breast cancer screening tests are essential for protecting women’s health. Make sure you are aware of the recommendations for receiving these screening tests and talk to your doctor about setting up a plan for your annual screenings.

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