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Breast Cancer Screening Tests


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Breast cancer screenings are routine procedures that you and your doctor perform to check breast health before there are any symptoms of a problem.

Because breast cancer may have no symptoms in the early stages, screenings can catch the problem when treatment has the best chance for a good outcome.

Your doctor will consider your age, medical history and other risk factors in determining the type and frequency of breast cancer screenings.

There are two types of breast cancer testing. The first is the screening test which is given routinely (yearly mammogram, for example) even when there are no symptoms or risk factors.

The second type is the diagnostic test​, which your doctor uses when a screening test indicates something may be wrong. A biopsy of a suspicious lump in your breast is an example of a diagnostic test.

The benefit of following a regular schedule of screening tests is that your doctor can often detect cancer in its early stages. However, no screening test is 100% accurate.

This is the recommended screening schedule for women with no extraordinary risk factors from the American Cancer Society:

  • Women from ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so.
  • Women from ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women aged 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years, or can continue yearly screening. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.

Women with a strong family history of breast cancer should start routine screening at least 10 years before the age of onset of breast cancer in their relatives.

Breast cancer risk can be inherited from both paternal and maternal sides of the family.

Screening tests: breast self examination

The breast self-examination may be one of the better known screening tests. Advocates of the test recommend women of all ages perform the exam once per month.

The exam involves moving your hand over each breast to feel for unusual lumps or tenderness. Anything suspicious should be reported to your doctor.

Your first step toward a healthy lifestyle is making an appointment with your family doctor. Together, you and your doctor can discuss the best options for breast care. Would you like to find a primary care doctor?

Health care professionals do not universally agree on the benefits of breast self-examinations. A large study casts doubts on the benefits of breast self-examinations in reducing deaths from breast cancer.

However, many health professionals believe that breast self-examinations are helpful when used with mammograms and clinical examinations.

Breast self-examinations may seem confusing at first. Natural cycles may cause your breasts to feel differently at different times of the month.

With some guidance and practice, breast self examinations can be helpful in identifying changes you should bring to your doctor's attention.

Screening tests: clinical breast examination

Your doctor or other health care professional performs a clinical (or physical) breast examination by manually examining your breasts.

The exam is much like a breast self- examination, but heath professionals may find an area of concern you missed.

Clinical breast exams offer another line of defense against breast cancer, however, like self-examinations, these screening tests do not catch every insistence of breast cancer. However, they do catch some cancers that are missed by mammograms.


Mammograms are the best tool your doctor has for early detection of most cancers. However, if you don't have a regularly scheduled mammogram, you lose the benefit of this screening test.

Mammograms are simple, quick (usually 20 minutes or so) and safe. The test uses only a small amount of radiation to make the image.

While mammograms are the single best tool for finding cancer, especially in its early stages, it is not a perfect test. Normal breast tissue may hide cancer from the test or an area may appear to be cancer when it is not.

This is one of the reasons many health care professionals insist patients use all three screening tests.

Mammograms performed on a regular basis (usually once a year when you are age 40 or older) often catch cancer when it is most easily treated.

Discuss how often you should have a mammogram with your doctor. Risk factors may change the usually recommended schedule.

If you have been diagnosed and/or treated for breast cancer, your doctor may use mammograms to track progress of treatment. In these cases, the mammogram will focus on a specific area of breast tissue.

Molecular breast imaging (MBI)​

Cancers appear white in mammograms. Dense breast tissue also appears white. As a result, dense breast tissue can sometimes mask tumors. Secondary screening using molecular breast imaging may help rule out cancer in these instances.

MBI can detect breast cancers as small as five millimeters. The technology uses a radiotracer that "lights up" cancer tissue. There are clear differences between tumors and surrounding tissue.

You may benefit from MBI if you have a complex or dense breast tissue pattern. 

Learn more about MBI screening.​

Genetic counseling and testing

Certain forms of breast cancer are tied to abnormalities in genes known as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. If you have a family member that has tested positive for abnormalities in either of these genes, you may want to consider genetic counseling and testing.

Genetic counselors at Marshfield Clinic will guide you through the process and explain the benefits and challenges of genetic testing for these abnormalities.

Mutations in these genes do not mean you will develop breast cancer, however you are at a higher risk. What action you should take with the results of genetic testing is not always clear.

However, if there is a history of this mutation in your family, you may want to take preventive actions. Your doctor can explain your options and possible preventive steps based on your risk factors.

If you know you have abnormalities in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, that information can help your doctor design a treatment plan if you do develop breast cancer. Discuss the pros and cons of genetic testing with your Marshfield Clinic doctor or genetic counselor.

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