Breast Cancer Screening - Early Detection of Breast Cancer

Saima Andrabi   by Saima Andrabi, MS, Clinical Biochemistry    Last updated on November 26, 2020,

What Is Breast Cancer Screening?

Breast cancer screening means checking a woman's breasts for cancer before any signs or symptoms of the disease. The main goal behind breast cancer screening is to find it before it causes symptoms, usually a lump that can be felt. Screening implies various tests and exams employed to find a disease in people who don't have any symptoms. Screening is helpful in the early detection of disease. It results in finding and diagnosing a disease earlier than if one would have waited for symptoms to start.

Cancers found during breast cancer screening tests and exams are more likely to be smaller in size and still confined to the breast only. How far the breast cancer has spread and the size of breast cancer are essential factors in predicting a woman's outlook (prognosis) with this disease.

It should be noted that breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer as such, but it can help the early diagnosis of breast cancer, making it easier to treat. To conduct a breast cancer screening, various tests and exams are used, and you should consult your doctor before going for any screening test. You should also talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you and when you should have them.

What Is the Breast Cancer Screening Age?

You should be aware of your breasts' normal look and feel and should not hesitate to report to a healthcare professional the moment you feel any unusual change. However, different organizations have different breast cancer screening age recommendations.

According to the American Cancer Society's breast cancer screening recommendations for breast cancer screening age of women with average breast cancer risk:

  • Women between ages 40 to 44 should have the opportunity to start annual breast cancer screening if they wish to do so.
  • Women between ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year as part of breast cancer screening.
  • Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years.
  • Breast cancer screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
  • You should know the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked to breast cancer screening. 

Read About Breast Self Exam (BSE)

What Are the Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations and Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) look at research on the best way to prevent diseases and make recommendations on how doctors can help patients avoid diseases or find them early. It is an organization made up of doctors and disease experts and drafts various recommendations and guidelines for various diseases.

The USPSTF recommends that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram every two years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor or other health care professional about when to start and how often to get a mammogram. Women should first analyze the benefits and risks of screening tests when deciding whether to begin getting mammograms at age 40.

2015 updated breast cancer screening guidelines by the American Cancer Society recommends the following:

  • It is strongly recommended that women with an average risk of breast cancer undergo regular screening mammography starting at age 45.
  • For women aged 45 to 54 years, it is a qualified recommendation to be screened annually.
  • It is recommended to have biennial screening or have the choice to continue screening annually for women 55 years and older.
  • It is recommended for women to begin annual screening between the ages of 40 and 44 years.

Apart from these organizations, other bodies such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) engaged in making sure that drafted breast cancer screening recommendations and breast cancer screening guidelines are adhered properly.

Read About Escaping the Breast Cancer: Different Ways to Cope a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

What Are the Breast Cancer Screening Tests?

Various tests are used to screen for different types of cancers. The selection of the most appropriate screening tests depends on various factors. For example, some screening tests are used as they help find cancers early and subsequently decrease the chance of dying from these cancers, while other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people.

However, none of the clinical trials have established that the use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.

Scientists are concerned with the study of screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits and how the screening tests can help diagnose cancer early. Since the chance of recovery is better if the disease is found and treated early for some types of cancer.

Different options of breast cancer screening tests are following.

  • Mammogram
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Clinical Breast Exam

If something abnormal is found during the breast cancer screening test, your doctor will advise some other tests, known as diagnostic tests. Sometimes the screening tests may give false-positive results, leading to overdiagnosis, leading to treatments you don't need.

What's a Mammogram?

It is the most common screening test for breast cancer where x-ray beams are used to obtain an image of your breasts. A mammogram helps find the tumors that are too small to feel. It can also reveal ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), where abnormal cells are found in a breast duct lining, which may become invasive cancer in some women.

However, it has some disadvantages as well. Apart from being exposed to radiation during the test process, mammograms are less likely to find breast tumors in women younger than 50 years than in older women. It may be due to the denser breast tissue in younger women that appears white on a mammogram. Since tumors also appear white on a mammogram, it may get difficult to find the tumor when there is dense breast tissue.

There is no defined age for mammogram screening, but the age which is recommended for getting a mammogram as part of breast cancer screening is 40 years. Women between ages 40 to 74 years have lower chances of dying from breast cancer if they have screening mammograms than women who do not have screening mammograms. However, some newly drafted guidelines recommend setting 50 years of age for starting breast cancer screening via mammogram. Repeated exposure to x-rays during the mammogram test process may be a thing of concern for many women.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI is an imaging procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of the inside of your breasts. It doesn't use any x-rays and is sometimes also referred to as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.

MRI is usually preferred as a screening test for women who have one or more of the following:

  • Certain genetic changes, such as in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
  • A family history with breast cancer in first-degree relatives, such as a mother, daughter, or sister.
  • Genetic syndromes, such as Li-Fraumeni or Cowden syndrome.

MRI is generally used to screen women who are at high risk of cancer along with mammograms. But it's common for MRI results to appear abnormal even when there is no breast cancer. Because of this disadvantage, MRI is not used for women at average risk.

Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is an exam performed by a doctor or nurse on your breast to feel the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. However, it is not established that having clinical breast exams decreases the chance of dying from breast cancer.

Breast self-exams can also be used to feel for any lumps or to check for any other changes. You need to know how your breasts usually look and feel and consult your healthcare provider promptly if you see any deviation from that or change.

Saima Andrabi

Saima Andrabi is a clinical biochemist and is passionate about driving knowledge platforms for creating health awareness in the general public. She pursued her master’s degree in clinical biochemistry from University of Kashmir, Srinagar followed by an internship from National Institute of pathology, New Delhi. Her areas of interest include molecular biology, immunology, medical physiology and forensic medicine. Saima is very much interested in writing medical content and wants to create awareness in public through this platform.


Currently, Saima Andrabi is working at Maxinov Solutions Private LTD as a research associate and is associated with DiseaseFix as a medical content writer.

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