What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer: Detection

Breast cancer screenings are performed to check a woman’s breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. Though this type of preventive care cannot defend against breast cancer, it can assist in early detection of symptoms when treatment is likely to be most effective. Breast cancers found during the screening process are more likely to be smaller masses that are still confined to the breast and have not yet spread to other parts of the body.

When/Where to Screen: The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women ages 50 to 74 get a mammogram every two years. Those between the ages of 40 to 49 should consult with their primary care physician as to the best time to begin screenings. Breast cancer screenings can be performed at a clinic, hospital or doctor’s office. Most health insurance plans are required to cover mammograms every one to two years for women beginning at age 40.

Types of Screenings

  • Mammograms are x-rays of the breast. They are currently the most effective way to detect breast cancer early, before the cancer is large enough to generate symptoms. Mammography has helped reduce breast cancer mortality in the U.S. by nearly one-third since 1990.
  • Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the breast. MRIs are often used in conjunction with mammograms to screen those who are at high risk for breast cancer, at which point they are no longer considered a screening procedure but rather a diagnostic test. With or without an MRI, a breast tissue biopsy or lumpectomy may be indicated to allow for tissue diagnosis, if further clarification is needed.
  • Clinical Breast Exams are manual examinations by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes.
  • Self-Exams are those performed on your own body to check for lumps, pain, changes in size or any other differences that may spark concern. It’s important to remember that no breast is typical. The look and feel of breasts can be affected by a woman’s menstrual cycle, childbirth, weight loss or gain, certain medications and even age. When completing a self- exam, try to check at the same time every month. If there are new or changing lumps, see a primary care physician right away. Do not be shy or apprehensive when reporting a new finding to the doctor’s office. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Self-exams are a great first line of defense because women are more familiar with their own bodies than anyone else. Women with dense breasts may have difficulty with this, but it’s important to note the regular landscape of each breast to better determine if something is new, compared to a previous self-exam.

Warning Signs: The signs and symptoms of breast cancer can present differently in each person. While some women may not show any signs or symptoms, others could show warning signs such as the following:

  • Lump(s) in the breast with or without an underarm lump
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Dimpling of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin anywhere on the breast
  • Inverting nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • A change in the size or the shape of the breast

It’s important to note that while these symptoms can be associated with breast cancer, they may also be present with other, less serious conditions. Don’t be shy, discuss your findings with your primary care physician.

Dr. Denice Logan is a medical director with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

 

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske via Flickr

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