Quick guide to breast cancer screening
Screenings for breast cancer are vital, because early detection saves lives.
Screening refers to the tests and exams used to detect a disease in people who don't exhibit symptoms. The goal of these screening tests, such as mammograms, is to find cancers before they start showing symptoms and spread to other parts of the body.
We've heard it repeatedly, and it is true: early detection is the key to diagnosing, treating and surviving breast cancer. Breast cancer screenings save many lives every year.
Early detection leads to early treatment, which vastly improves the prognosis for recovery. Doctors know that early detection of breast cancer saves thousands of lives every year, and that many more lives can be saved when women take advantage of the available screenings. Breast cancers found during an early screening are more likely to be small and confined to the breast, so chances are improved that an early stage of the disease can be diagnosed and treated successfully.
Women over the age of 40 should have a screening mammogram yearly and continue to do so. A mammogram can occasionally miss some cancers, but despite their limitations they remain very effective in detecting breast cancer. Current evidence supporting mammograms is stronger than ever. A mammogram is basically an X-ray of the breast. A diagnostic mammogram is used to diagnose breast disease in women who have breast symptoms or an abnormal result on a screening mammogram. Screening mammograms are used to look for breast disease in women who appear to have no problems.
Strict guidelines are used to ensure that the mammogram equipment is safe and uses the lowest dose of radiation possible. Mammogram screenings are done to detect a cancer that cannot be felt. If you have a breast lump, have it checked by your doctor and consider having it biopsied, even if your mammogram result is normal. A mammogram cannot prove that an abnormal area is cancer. To confirm that cancer is present, a small amount of tissue must be biopsied (removed for study under a microscope).
Breast cancer screenings with mammograms are now more available to medically underserved women, with several programs that provide early detection screenings to women for free or at a very low cost. Most private health insurance as well as Medicare and Medicaid cover at least a percentage of mammogram costs. These screenings should be a vital part of a healthy lifestyle for every woman over 40, since early detection dramatically affects the possibilities for full recovery.
In addition to an annual mammogram, women can have a clinical breast exam, which is similar to the breast self-exam, but performed by a health care professional such as a doctor, nurse or nurse-practitioner. Attention is given to the shape and texture of the breast to detect abnormalities. This is a good way to learn the proper technique for performing a self-exam, which women should do on a regular basis. A woman can then notice changes to her own breasts and report any changes to her physician right away.
If the cost of an annual mammogram is an issue, contact your local American Cancer Society chapter to learn about options for financial help.