Breast Cancer Screening & Diagnosis

Why Breast Cancer Screening Matters

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

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?

  • Breast cancer risk is on the rise: 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.
  • Finding breast cancer earlier boosts your survival odds: Women who have breast cancer screening mammograms are much less likely to die from the disease. This depends on:
    • The quality of the test
    • Getting screened as often as you need to
    • Doing what your doctor says afterward


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. Learn more about how to do a breast self-exam.


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. Read about how digital mammograms can give a clearer picture.

Breast MRI

This test combines several images of your breast into one to create a detailed picture. It’s more often used after you’re diagnosed to see how far cancer has spread, but your doctor might combine it with a mammogram as a screening test if:

  • You’re at a high risk for breast cancer.
  • You have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
  • Your breasts are dense (there are a lot of ducts, glands, and fibrous tissue but little fat) and mammograms didn't find a previous breast cancer.
  • You have dense breasts, a strong family history of breast cancer, and you’ve had precancerous breast changes like atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ.
  • You have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.
  • You had radiation treatments to your chest area before you were 30.

Know more about MRI to diagnose breast cancer.


Breast Ultrasound

Your doctor is most likely to use this if you have dense breasts. It’s also an option if you’re at high risk for breast cancer and you can’t have an MRI or if you’re pregnant so you aren’t exposed to X-rays from a mammogram. Get more details on what happens during a breast ultrasound.

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. Find out what to expect with a breast biopsy.

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. Get more information on what to do after a breast cancer diagnosis.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 08, 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.”

Mayo Clinic: “Breast MRI.”

Radiological Society of North America: “Breast Cancer Screening.”

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.