Breast Cancer Screening

Many women wonder at what age they should start screening for breast cancer, and what types of breast cancer screening are the most efficient and effective. Unfortunately there are no easy answers to these questions, but medical professionals do agree on certain guidelines that all women should know. Screening for cancer means looking for cancer before the patient shows any symptoms. Because early detection can be crucial to cancer survival, especially breast cancer survival, breast cancer screening really does save lives.

Most women should begin regular breast cancer screening around age 45. The hormonal changes associated with menopause greatly increase breast cancer risk. Women over age 45 who have not started regular screening should speak to their doctor immediately about how to get started.

Some women with special risk factors will need to start breast cancer screening much earlier. The most severe risk factor is previous incidence of breast cancer. Other risk factors include family history of breast cancer, being overweight or obese, having your first child at an older age (older than 35), and having your first menstruation at an early age (before age 12). Women who think they may be at increased risk of developing breast cancer should consult with their doctors about deciding when to begin breast cancer screening.

Different tests are used to screen for breast cancer. The most well-known is the mammogram. A mammogram is simply an x-ray of the breast. Doctors recommend regular annual mammograms for post-menopausal women and those who are at high risk. The mammogram is less effective for younger women, who tend to have more dense breast tissue. The success of the mammogram in detecting breast cancer may also depend on the size of the tumor.

Other tests for breast cancer screening are gaining favor among radiologists, particularly the ultrasound and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Clinical trials have shown MRI breast scans to be more sensitive than mammogram images. They can therefore detect smaller tumors which are often hidden on a mammogram image. Ultrasound screening can also detect very small calcifications which might not show up on a mammogram image. Ultrasound is also useful for differentiating between solid tumors and fluid-filled cysts. Although neither ultrasound nor MRI are typically employed for regular, annual breast cancer screening, they can be very useful for women who are at particularly high risk, and also as a supplement to regular mammography.

As medical technology improves, early detection of dangerous tumors continues to improve. With new advances in breast cancer screening, survival rates continue to increase. If you are unsure about whether to begin screening or how you should start, don't hesitate to bring the subject up with your doctor. Early detection is the only cure we have.

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