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Breast Cancer Screening

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Topic Overview

The type and frequency of breast cancer screening that is best for you changes as you age.

  • Ages 18 to 39: Some experts recommend that women have a clinical breast exam every 3 years, starting at age 20. Talk with your doctor about how often you should have a breast exam. If you have a high risk for developing breast cancer, talk to your doctor about when to begin having routine mammograms and other screening tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Ages 40 and older: It is important for you to discuss with your doctor the medical evidence about mammograms before you decide when to start having mammograms and how often to have them. For woman at average risk:
    • The American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that most women begin screening at age 40 and then have a mammogram every year.
    • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that most women begin screening at age 50, and then have a mammogram every 2 years until age 74.
    • The risk of breast cancer increases with age, and the age at which testing no longer helps reduce death from breast cancer is not known. If you are 75 or older, talk to your doctor about mammography as a regular part of your health care plan.

You can find out your personal risk level at www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool.

Early detection is an important factor in the success of breast cancer treatment. The earlier breast cancer is found, the more easily and successfully it can be treated. The two methods commonly used for early detection are:

  • Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that can often find tumors that are too small for you or your doctor to feel.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE). During a clinical breast exam, your doctor will carefully feel your breasts and under your arms to check for lumps or other unusual changes. Talk to your doctor about whether to have a clinical breast exam.

Make sure you know what your breasts normally look and feel like. When you know what is normal for you, you are better able to notice changes. Tell your doctor right away if you notice any changes in your breasts.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the breast may be used as a screening test for women who have a high risk of breast cancer. This includes women who test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, or have two or more close family members who have had breast cancer before age 50. MRI may also be used to evaluate the opposite breast in women diagnosed with breast cancer.

For more information, see the topic Breast Cancer.

See also:

Breast Cancer Screening: When Should I Start Having Mammograms?
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 22, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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