Hundreds of thousands of women get breast cancer every year. But the vast majority of these women can go on to live healthy lives — if the cancer is found early and diagnosed accurately. Early diagnosis also empowers women with more treatment options.Women aged 20 to 40 should do a breast self-examination (BSE) every month and have a clinical breast exam by a health professional every three years.

Screening guidelines

The American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for breast-cancer screening:

  • For women aged 40 and older, monthly breast self-exams, annual clinical breast exams by a health professional and an annual screening mammogram are all recommended. (Note: Guidelines may vary depending upon individual risk factors.)
  • While recently these guidelines have been questioned, we continue to recommend following the ACS guidelines unless there is further data to support a change. In January 2010, both the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging published updated screening guidelines recommending annual screening mammography for women age 40 and over. For some women at high risk for breast cancer, the guidelines suggest that women start screening mammograms even earlier.

Learn more about Screening Guidelines

What are the keys to early diagnosis?

To find cancer at its earliest, most treatable stage, women should follow a complete early-detection program, made up of three essential parts:

  • Breast Self-Examinations (BSE) — The American Cancer Society encourages women to take an active role in early detection by becoming familiar with their breast tissue. These examinations include checking for lumps and looking for changes in the breast or surrounding areas and are best done a week after the start of the menstrual period.
  • Clinical Breast Examinations — A clinical breast exam is performed by a health professional during regular medical checkups. The doctor or nurse palpates (carefully examines) the breast tissue and surrounding areas, looking for signs of breast disease.
  • Annual Screening Mammograms — A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray used to routinely evaluate breast health. For women with no current breast problems, these are called screening mammograms. Mammography is used to help see whether there are any abnormalities or changes in the breast tissue that may need to be explored further.

    To perform the mammogram, the breast is positioned on an adjustable platform that delivers the x-ray beam. A clear plastic plate then gradually presses down on the breast, compressing it against the platform. This compression allows for better-quality images, using only a very small amount of X-ray. Generally, two images are taken of each breast — one from above and one from the side. Women with breast augmentation with implants will usually have four images of each breast. Each time the breast is fully compressed for only a few seconds. A radiologist (a doctor specially trained in interpreting X-rays) will carefully scrutinize the image, looking for any changes that may be an early sign of cancer.

    Digital mammography is used in all the Swedish centers. It differs from conventional mammography in that it captures images digitally instead of on film (similar to the way a digital camera takes pictures versus a traditional camera). Digital technology offers advantages such as improved image contrast and lower radiation dose to patients. Early data suggests that digital mammography can help detect cancer better in many women. It also allows for quicker, easier electronic retrieval and storage of images. The future of digital mammography is quite promising.

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