Approximately 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to research by the American Cancer Society (ACS). Aside from skin cancer, it is the most common type of cancer — and the second most common cause of cancer death in U.S. women. But when caught early, breast cancer can be easier to treat, meaning patients have better outcomes.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Screenings
One barrier to early detection is that many women with breast cancer do not have symptoms, such as a lump that they can feel. That’s why breast cancer screening can be a lifesaving tool to catch the disease at an early stage.
Breast cancer screenings don’t protect you from getting cancer. However, they can help doctors remove a tumor while it is small and hasn’t spread. Screening methods, according to the ACS, include:
- Mammograms. A mammogram is an x-ray of breast tissue that can help doctors find cancer. For most women, it is the most common and effective way to search for breast cancer.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI takes photos of breast tissue. Doctors may order this test along with a mammogram to detect cancer in women who are at a higher risk or have dense breasts.
- Clinical and self-exams. You or your medical provider can conduct a physical exam of your breasts by using touch to feel for lumps or other possible signs of cancer. If you notice any changes in your breasts, you should notify your doctor immediately.
The Annals of Internal Medicine emphasizes the importance of breast cancer screening. Its research has shown that early screening and diagnosis greatly reduce deaths from breast cancer.
Should I Get a Breast Cancer Screening?
Early detection can save lives, so talk to your doctor about screening options and what’s right for you based on the following risk factors.
Your age can help determine whether you should begin getting regular breast cancer screenings. If you are at average risk of breast cancer, consider following these recommendations from the ACS:
- Women ages 40-44 can choose to start annual mammograms
- Annual mammograms are recommended for women ages 45-54
- From age 55 on, women can continue annual mammograms or switch to every two years
Your doctor may determine that you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer if:
- There is a history of breast cancer in your immediate family (such as a parent, sibling, or child)
- You have the BRCA or BRCA2 genes
- You have a genetic syndrome like Li-Fraumeni or Cowden syndrome
If you are considered at a high risk, your doctor may recommend breast cancer screenings starting as early as age 30.
According to the ACS, white women in the United States have the highest rates of breast cancer diagnoses. However, the rate of death due to breast cancer is about 40% higher in Black women than it is in white women. Research suggests the disparity may come down to several factors, including:
- Less access to early screening tests among Black women, which means their cancer may be at a later stage when it’s diagnosed
- Less access to high-quality cancer treatment
- Other factors that increase cancer risk, such as obesity and cases of triple negative breast cancer, which is harder to treat
Are There Risks to Breast Cancer Screenings?
Screening tests should always be a shared and informed decision between you and your doctor. Getting screened can include some risks; though generally minor, they’re worth discussing. According to the National Institutes of Health, risks include:
- False positive test result: This can occur when a medical provider sees something on a test that looks like cancer but is not. This can lead to unnecessary emotional stress or further diagnostic testing.
- Overdiagnosis: Occurs when when doctors recommend aggressively treating a cancer that would not have actually caused symptoms. The treatment can be invasive and have negative side effects.
- Radiation: Mammography exposes the body to a very small amount of radiation (less than a standard chest x-ray).
- Discomfort: Getting a mammogram can cause a small amount of pain or discomfort during the test.