Breast Cancer Detection

If I Have Breast Cancer?

The sooner breast cancer gets diagnosed, the better your odds of getting a successful treatment for it are.

That's why it’s important to have regular breast exams by your doctor, mammograms as recommended, and to check your breasts for any suspicious changes.

Self-Exams

It's a good idea to know how your breasts normally look and feel so you can notice any changes.

Medical organizations have different recommendations for breast self-exams, though. The American Cancer Society, for example, says they’re optional for women starting in their 20s. Talk with your doctor to get a better sense of what's right for you.

It may better to wait 3 to 5 days after your period ends to do your self-exam. That's because hormonal changes before your period can cause a temporary thickening in your breast that goes away after your period.

First look for dimpling or changes in shape or symmetry of your breasts. It might be best to do that by looking in a mirror. The rest of the self-exam is easiest to do in the shower, using soap to smooth your skin. Use light pressure to check for lumps near the surface, and firm pressure to explore deeper tissue. Any time you find a new or unusual lump in your breast, have your doctor check it. Most lumps aren’t cancer.

Squeeze each nipple gently -- if there's any discharge, see your doctor. Also let her know if you notice a change in the position or shape of a nipple.

If you’re still unsure, your doctor can go over the self-exam with you. She should examine your breasts every year, too.

Mammograms

When and if you need these imaging tests is a personal decision between you and your doctor. Most women don’t start having mammograms until they’re at least 40. If you’re at higher risk for breast cancer, your doctor may want you to start at a younger age.

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening mammograms starting at 45. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says otherwise. It recommends that women between 50 and 74 get screened every 2 years.

A mammogram can show breast lumps up to 2 years before they can be felt. Different tests help determine if a lump may be cancer. Ones that aren’t cancerous tend to have different physical features than ones that are. Imaging tests such as mammograms and ultrasounds can often see the difference.

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Diagnosis

The only way to confirm cancer is for a doctor to do a needle aspiration or surgical biopsy to collect and test tissue for cancer cells.

If It’s Cancer

If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you and your doctor will need to know what type it is and how advanced it is. A check of your lymph nodes can tell if the disease has spread. Other tests give an idea of what treatments may work best for you, and still others predict the likelihood that your cancer will come back after treatment.

Your doctor can help you understand all of these tests, and together you’ll decide on the best treatment plan for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 10, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Breastcancer.org.

WebMD Medical Reference from the American College of Physicians: "Oncology: Breast Cancer."

National Cancer Institute.

Journal of the American Medical Association.

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