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Breast Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Patient Information [NCI] - Breast Cancer Screening

Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.

Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and in decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; however, it has not been proven in clinical trials that use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.

Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, the chance of recovery is better if the disease is found and treated at an early stage.

Clinical trials that study cancer screening methods are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Three tests are used by health care providers to screen for breast cancer:

Mammogram

Mammography is the most common screening test for breast cancer. A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. This test may find tumors that are too small to feel. A mammogram may also find ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). In DCIS, there are abnormal cells in the lining of a breast duct, which may become invasive cancer in some women.

Mammograms are less likely to find breast tumors in women younger than 50 years than in older women. This may be because younger women have denser breast tissue that appears white on a mammogram. Because tumors also appear white on a mammogram, they can be harder to find when there is dense breast tissue.
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Mammography. The breast is pressed between two plates. X-rays are used to take pictures of breast tissue.

The following may affect whether a mammogram is able to detect (find) breast cancer:

  • The size of the tumor.
  • How dense the breast tissue is.
  • The skill of the radiologist.

Women aged 40 to 74 years who have screening mammograms and are diagnosed with breast cancer have a lower chance of dying from breast cancer than women who do not have screening mammograms.

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