Learning About Breast Cancer Screening

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What is breast cancer screening?

Breast cancer occurs when cells that are not normal grow in one or both of your breasts. Screening tests can help find breast cancer early. Cancer is easier to treat when it's found early.

Having concerns about breast cancer is common. That's why it's important to talk with your doctor about when to start and how often to get screened for breast cancer.

How is breast cancer screening done?

Several screening tests can be used to check for breast cancer.


These tests check for signs of cancer using X-rays. They can show tumors that are too small to feel. During a mammogram, a machine squeezes your breasts to make them flatter and easier to X-ray. At least two pictures are taken of each breast. One is taken from the top and one from the side.

Clinical breast exam.

In this exam, your doctor carefully feels your breasts and under your arms to check for lumps or other changes.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the breast.

A standard MRI may be used as a screening test if you have a high risk of breast cancer.

Your breast cancer screening center may offer you other tests, such as digital breast tomosynthesis (3D mammograms) or an abbreviated breast MRI (sometimes called a "fast MRI"). Ask your doctor whether these tests are right for you.

When should you get screened?

Mammograms are the best screening test for people at average risk of breast cancer. But experts don't all agree on the age at which screening should start. And they don't agree on whether it's better to be screened every year or every two years.

Here are some of the recommendations from experts:

  • Start at age 40 and have a mammogram every 1 or 2 years.
  • Start at age 45 and have a mammogram each year.
  • Start at age 50 and have a mammogram every 1 or 2 years.

When to stop having mammograms is another decision. You and your doctor can decide on the right age to start and stop screening based on your personal preferences and overall health.

What is your risk for breast cancer?

If you don't already know your risk of breast cancer, you can ask your doctor about it. You can also look it up at www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool/.

If your doctor says that you have a high or very high risk, ask about ways to reduce your risk. These could include getting extra screening, taking medicine, or having surgery. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about genetic testing.

What steps can you take to stay healthy?

Some things that increase your risk of breast cancer, such as your age and being female, cannot be controlled. But you can do some things to stay as healthy as you can.

  • Learn what your breasts normally look and feel like. If you notice any changes, tell your doctor.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit how much you drink. Any amount of alcohol may increase your risk for some types of cancer.
  • If you smoke, quit. When you quit smoking, you lower your chances of getting many types of cancer.

You can also do your best to eat well, be active, and stay at a healthy weight. Eating healthy foods and being active every day, as well as staying at a healthy weight, may help prevent cancer.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.