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Your Best Breast Cancer Screening Today

Here are three tests every woman should have.
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WebMD Feature

Mammograms, breast self exams, and clinical breast exams may not be new in the breast cancer screening landscape, but there have been recent confirmations or changes in policies regarding each test.

Many national health groups decided to review the largest, most significant studies on breast cancer screening, hoping to make recommendations based on solid scientific evidence.

Experts say the new guidelines on the most popular screening methods should help boost the chances of detecting disease in its earliest stages, when it's most treatable.

There's good reason to follow these guidelines. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the US, other than skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 2003 alone, an estimated 211,000 American women will likely be diagnosed with breast cancer. But if caught early, most breast cancers can be cured.

Mammography: Still the Gold Standard

Most cases of breast cancer in western countries are now found by mammography. The X-ray technique became the subject of much controversy after a group of Danish investigators analyzed several international studies used by leading health associations to make their recommendations on mammography. The analysis suggested that the research had a number of flaws, and that perhaps mammograms did little to detect breast cancer, and, thus, save lives.

The report, which appeared in the October 20, 2001 issue of The Lancet, spurred national organizations to reassess the literature on mammography. The re-examination, however, only strengthened earlier positions.

"Every organization that made a statement (about the benefit of mammograms) reviewed the studies again, and said, 'Absolutely, mammography does have a benefit. It decreases death from breast cancer,'" says Debbie Saslow, PhD, director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society.

More than ever, leading health groups view mammograms as the gold standard in breast cancer screening. As Harold Burstein, MD, PhD, member of the breast cancer team for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, puts it, "In terms of the treatments that have been proven to help early detection, and therefore early survival of breast cancer, onlymammography has really been proven to be a very valuable treatment."

This recent reaffirmation of mammograms has yielded the following guidelines:

  • American Cancer Society and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute recommend that all women get a mammogram every year beginning at age 40.
  • The National Cancer Institute advocates screening every one to two years for women 40 years and older. Women with higher than average risk of getting breast cancer are also encouraged to ask their doctors if they should start screening at an earlier age, and how often they should have it done.
  • The US Preventive Services Task Force advises women 40 and older to get a mammogram, with or without a breast examination performed by a doctor, every one to two years.

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