Finding breast cancer early and getting sophisticated cancer treatment are the most important management strategies to prevent deaths from breast cancer. Getting regular screening tests done is the most reliable way to detect breast cancer early. The American Cancer Society has screening guidelines for women at average risk of breast cancer, and for those at high risk for breast cancer.
What are screening tests?
The screening tests for breast cancer are done to find it before it shows up symptoms (like a lump that can be felt). Screening refers to tests /exams used to find a disease in people who don’t have any symptoms. Early detection means finding and diagnosing a disease earlier than if you’d waited for symptoms to start.
Breast cancers found during screening exams are most likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. The size of breast cancer, location and the area of its spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis of breast cancer.
American Cancer Society screening recommendations for women at average breast cancer risk
These guidelines are for women at average risk for breast cancer. For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, or a genetic mutation known to increase the risk of breast cancer (such as in a BRCA gene), and has not had chest radiation therapy before the age of 30.
Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.
All women should understand what to expect when getting a mammogram for breast cancer screening – what the test can and cannot do.
Clinical breast exams are not recommended for breast cancer screening among average-risk women at any age.
Mammograms are low-dose x-rays of the breast. Regular mammograms can help find breast cancer at an early stage when the chances of treatment are most successful. A mammogram can often find breast changes that could be cancer years before physical symptoms develop. Results from many decades of research clearly show that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found early, are less likely to need aggressive treatment like surgery to remove the breast (mastectomy) and chemotherapy, and are more likely to be cured.
In recent years, a newer type of mammogram called digital breast tomosynthesis (commonly known as three-dimensional [3D] mammography) has become much more common, although it’s not available in all breast imaging centres.
Many studies have found that 3D mammography appears to lower the chance of being called back for follow-up testing. It also appears to find more breast cancers, and several studies have shown it can be helpful in women with more dense breasts. A large study is now in progress to better compare outcomes between 3D mammograms and standard (2D) mammograms.
Clinical breast exam and breast self-exam
Research has not shown a clear benefit of regular physical breast exams done by either a health professional (clinical breast exams) or by women themselves (breast self-exams). There is very little evidence that these tests help find breast cancer early when women also get screening mammograms. Most often when breast cancer is detected because of symptoms a woman discovers the symptom during usual activities such as bathing or dressing. Women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and should report any changes to a health care provider right away.
Weight: Recent studies have shown that postmenopausal women who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of breast cancer. These women also have a higher risk of having cancer come back after treatment.
Physical activity: Lower amounts of physical activity is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer and a higher risk of having cancer come back after treatment. Regular physical activity, such as 3 to 4 hours of moderate exercise per week, may protect against breast cancer by helping women maintain a healthy body weight, lowering hormone levels, or causing changes in a woman’s metabolism or immune factors, such as enhancing “natural killer” cells to fight off abnormal cells. Maintaining a healthy body weight may also protect against cancer coming back after a breast cancer diagnosis.
Alcohol: Current research suggests that having more than 1 to 2 servings of alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits, per day raises the risk of breast cancer, as well as the risk of having cancer come back after treatment. It is recommended to limit your alcohol intake to 3 to 4 servings per week.
Food: There is no reliable research that confirms that eating or avoiding specific foods increases the risk of developing breast cancer or having cancer come back after treatment. However, eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer animal fats is linked with many health benefits.
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