Breast Cancer Screening & Diagnosis

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 get mammograms as recommended, to be familiar with how  your breasts usually look, and to report any changes to your doctor ASAP. Why?

  1. The lifetime risk of a woman getting breast cancer in the U.S. was around 5%, or 1 in 20, in 1940. Now it’s 12%, or more than 1 in 8.
  2. It is estimated that in 2019 about 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. Some 41,760 women will die from breast cancer.
  3. Women who undergo breast cancer screening mammograms have demonstrated significantly reduced deaths from the disease.
  4. How well the screening works depends on the quality of the test itself, getting screened as often as you need to, and following your doctor’s recommendations afterward.

Breast 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, states that research has not shown a clear benefit of performing regular breast self-exams. Talk with your doctor to get a better sense of what's right for you.


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.

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.

Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations

For women at average risk, the American Cancer Society recommends that women ages:

  • 45 to 54: Get yearly mammograms.
  • 55 and older: Can switch to getting a mammogram every other year or continue getting yearly mammograms.
  • 40 to 44: It’s OK to start a yearly mammogram.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening mammograms every other year for women ages 50-74. The decision to get a mammogram every other year from age 40 to 49 is up to you and your doctor.


How Do Doctors Diagnose Breast Cancer?

The only way to confirm cancer is for a doctor to do a needle aspiration or surgical breast 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 Laura J. Martin, MD on March 10, 2019



National Cancer Institute.

Journal of the American Medical Association.

Cleveland Clinic: “General Cancer Screening Guidelines.” “U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics.”

JAMA Network: “Breast Cancer Screening for Women at Average Risk: 2015 Guideline Update From the American Cancer Society.”

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: “Breast Cancer: Screening.”

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.