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Breast Cancer Health Center

Understanding Breast Cancer -- Diagnosis & Treatment

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How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

Treatments for breast cancer work best when you find the disease early. So it’s important to get the right screening test at the right time.If you’re diagnosed with the disease, it helps to learn as much as you can about your treatment options before you choose the one you want.

Breast Self-Exams and Mammograms

Breast self-exams are a cancer screening option for women starting in their 20s. Experts don’t agree on whether every woman needs to do them, so talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of checking your breasts and if it’s a good idea for you to start. If you decide to do them, ask your doctor to show you the right way to do it and what to watch for.

To do a self-exam, you’ll need to look at and feel your breasts. Stand in front of a mirror to look for dimpling or changes in shape or symmetry. The rest of the breast self-exam is easiest in the shower, using soap to smooth your skin. With light pressure, check for lumps near the surface. Use firm pressure to explore deeper tissues. Gently pinch all parts of your nipple and the colored area around it, called the areola. If there is any discharge from your nipple -- especially if it is bloody -- see your doctor.

It may be better to do a self-exam 3 to 5 days after your period ends. Premenstrual changes can make your breast tissue feel thicker in some places, but it goes away after your period is over.

Any time you find a new or unusual lump in your breast, have your doctor check it.

Mammograms are the most effective way to detect breast cancer.They can find lumps up to 2 years before you or a doctor can feel them by hand. But medical experts don’t agree on how often women need them. The American Cancer Society recommends that women have one every year starting at age 45. But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says women should have mammograms every 2 years between the ages of 50 and 74. The group says that there is not enough research to know whether screening after age 74 is a good idea. The decision about when to have a mammogram is personal. If you're over 40, talk to you doctor about when you should begin.

If you do find a lump during a self-exam or your doctor sees one on a mammogram, remember that most lumps aren’t cancer. But it’s still important for your doctor to test it. There are a few different tests she might use. Imaging tests such as digital mammography, 3-D mammography, and ultrasound can help her see if the lump has the physical features of a tumor. The only way to confirm that it’s cancer is to take some of the cells from the lump and look at them under a microscope. Your doctor can do this with a biopsy that uses a very thin needle.

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