Definition & Overview

When cancer cells form in the tissue of the breasts, it is referred to as breast cancer, which is one of the leading causes of death among women. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with this disease. Men are also prone to breast cancer although it rarely occurs.

The key to surviving breast cancer is early detection. If the cancer is detected while still in its early stages, it can be neutralized before it spreads to other body parts. Breast cancer screening is an early detection method that is widely used around the world.

Literally dozens of organizations dedicated to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer are heavily promoting breast cancer screening to reduce the number of fatalities caused by the disease. Countless lives have been saved through their efforts and the effectiveness of the screening methods.

If you have any symptoms of breast cancer, or suspect that you may have the disease, you should undergo breast cancer screening as soon as possible. Since the procedure is widely available, you should be able to find a medical organization that carries out the procedure within your area.

Who Should Go & Expected Results

You may already be wondering if you should undergo screening, even if you don’t notice any signs or symptoms of the disease. To help you decide, the American Cancer Society has provided the following recommendations on who should undergo screening.

  • Women over 40 should undergo a mammogram annually.
  • Women between 20 – 30 years old should have a clinical breast exam on a periodic basis.
  • Women in their 20’s should perform breast self-exams (BSE) regularly.
  • Women who have a high risk of breast cancer should undergo an MRI and a mammogram annually.

If you aren’t already aware, a mammogram is a type of imaging test of the breasts to detect any changes. It is the most effective method of detecting breast cancer while it is still in its early stages. You can follow the recommendations of the American Cancer Society in terms of when you should undergo a mammogram, or you can consult your doctor for a risk assessment. This assessment will be the basis on how frequently should you undergo the procedure.

Once you consult your doctor, part of the consultation will be a clinical breast exam. During this exam, the doctor will feel for lumps in your breasts. If the doctor suspects any changes in your breasts, you’ll be asked to undergo a mammogram.

You may also want to perform a BSE on a regular basis. To perform a BSE, simply feel your breasts and armpits to check for any lumps. If you do feel something, make sure to consult your doctor.

Some women are hesitant to consult a doctor or undergo breast cancer screening simply because they are afraid to learn the results. However, whether you undergo the screening procedure or not, you should know that the results will not change. Instead of being afraid, it’s best to think that should you indeed have breast cancer, your chances of surviving the disease is very high if it is detected in its early stage.

How Does The Procedure Work

The most common forms of breast cancer screening are a clinical breast exam, mammography, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Other screening tests include thermography and tissue sampling. A mammography procedure is similar to an x-ray. If you’ve undergone an x-ray before, it is not much different in concept. In a mammography, the breasts are pressed between two plates. The x-ray is then directed to the breasts so that an image can be produced. However, it’s important to note that a mammography may not be able to provide accurate results due to the following conditions:

  • Breast tissue density
  • Skill of radiologist
  • Size of the tumor

If the doctor is concerned about the results, you’ll likely to undergo further testing such as an MRI. MRIs are normally performed on women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer. These include women who have a personal or family history of breast cancer and certain genetic syndromes, such as Cowden or li-fraumi syndrome.

Possible Complications and Risks

Like any type of medical procedure, breast cancer screening also has its associated risks. However, these risks may be different in every age group.

  • False-negative or false-positive results
  • Developing anxiety due to false-positive results
  • Some pain or discomfort during a mammogram
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Detecting the breast cancer does not guarantee that the disease can be cured and prolong the patient’s life.

Even though there are risks, undergoing screening tests and finding breast cancer is better than not knowing you have it. If the cancer spreads or has already spread to other parts of your body, it will be difficult to treat, and the chances of survival are much lower.


  • Cuzick J, DeCensi A, Arun B, et al. Preventive therapy for breast cancer: a consensus statement. Lancet Oncol. 2011;12(5):496-503.

  • National Cancer Institute: PDQ Breast Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified 08/22/2013. Available at: Accessed November 12, 2013.

  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines): Breast cancer. Version 3.2013. Available at: Accessed November 12, 2013.

  • Warner E. Clinical practice. Breast-cancer screening. N Engl J Med. 2011;365:1025-1032.

  • Wolff AC, Comchek SM, Davidson NE, et al. Cancer of the breast. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al., eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 91.

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