Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, but there are many tests that can detect it in the early stages when treatment can be most successful. Knowing recommendations for these tests and the different types of screening that is available is important so that tests are done at the right time in a woman’s life.
- At age 45, women should begin having a mammogram every year until they are 54.
- Some women may want to begin having mammograms earlier than 40, depending on their risk and other factors.
- After age 55, women may begin having a mammogram every other year, or continue having one every year. Screenings should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 years.
Because the recommendations vary by age, risk, and personal preference, women are encouraged to talk with their doctor to find the screening schedule that is right for them.
Types of Breast Cancer Screenings and Tests
There are various types of screening tests and technologies to detect breast cancer.
Mammogram: A mammogram is an X-ray test that allows doctors to look for changes in the breast. Mammograms can often see changes before they can be felt. The test exposes the breasts to small amounts of radiation, but the benefits outweigh any possible harm from the exposure. Digital mammograms now store images on the computer as opposed to film of traditional X-rays.
3D Mammogram: This new type of mammogram allows doctors to see the breast more clearly in three dimensions. Many studies have found that 3D mammography appears to lower the chance of having to return for follow-up testing and finds more breast cancers. Several studies have shown it can be helpful in women with more dense breasts.
Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to take a picture inside the breast. It is used to follow up when change is noticed on a mammogram, when there is a lump that can be felt, but not seen on a mammogram, or to look closer at changes in women with dense breast tissue.
Breast MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves and strong magnets to make detailed pictures of the body. Breast MRI is used for women who have been diagnosed with cancer to help measure the size of tumors and to look for other tumors. Women who are at a high-risk of breast cancer may also have a breast MRI in addition to a mammogram. Breast MRI is not recommended on its own or for low-risk women because it can sometimes lead to false positives, or finding things that are not cancer.
Biopsy: When another test shows an area that might be cancer, a biopsy is done to check if the area is cancerous. During a biopsy the doctor will remove a bit of the suspicious tissue for testing. There are different types of biopsies from those using needles that withdraw a small part of the tissue to surgical procedures where some or all of the lump is removed. Once the tissue is taken out, it is sent to a lab where a pathologist determines if it is cancerous.