Breast Cancer Testing: An Overview of Screening and More

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Breast cancer is diagnosed through multiple screening tests. Certain factors may increase your risk of developing the disease. Early detection and treatment are key to disease management. Read more about screening for breast cancer, the risk factors of the disease, as well as the treatment process.

Female doctor talking to her patient and adjusting her position to do a mammogram

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What Is Screening and Why Is It Important?

Screening for breast cancer involves purposefully looking for signs of disease to diagnose it as early as possible. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better your prognosis will be.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that 12.9% of women born in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. This means the average American woman has a 1 in 8 chance of experiencing breast cancer.

Screening Can Save Lives

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death by cancer for women in the United States. Screening for breast cancer can save lives. Research shows that women between the ages of 50 and 69 years who undergo regular mammograms are less likely to die of breast cancer than those who don't get mammograms.

Screening tests are performed before you develop symptoms of the disease. The most common screening test for breast cancer is mammography. 

Talk with your healthcare provider about when to begin regular breast cancer screening. If you have tested positive for mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, you'll likely begin breast cancer screening earlier and more often than others. 

Breast Cancer Testing Process

There are several tests used to evaluate for breast cancer, including:

  • Breast exam: Your physician performs a breast exam to detect any lumps in the breast.
  • Breast ultrasound: A machine uses sound waves to look inside your breasts.
  • Mammogram: An X-ray of the breast is performed for either screening or diagnosis. 
  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI produces detailed pictures of areas in the breast using a magnet linked to a computer. 
  • Breast biopsy: Tissue or fluid from the breast is removed and examined under a microscope. 
  • Staging: Once breast cancer is diagnosed, additional tests are performed to stage the disease. Staging determines how advanced the cancer is and which treatment options may be the most helpful. 

Causes and Risks of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is caused by mutations that occur in the DNA of cells in the breasts. These mutations usually develop over a long period of time. Certain factors raise your risk of developing breast cancer. Risk factors of breast cancer include:

  • Genetic mutations: Up to 10% of breast cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
  • History of breast disease: Having a history of breast cancer or noncancerous breast diseases like atypical hyperplasia can increase your risk of breast cancer. 
  • Family history: Having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. 
  • History of radiation therapy: Exposure to medical radiation before age 20 can put you at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. 
  • Hormone replacement therapy: Being exposed to hormones from oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy may raise your risk of breast cancer. 
  • Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity is a risk factor for developing breast cancer. 
  • Obesity: Older people who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. 
  • Dense breast tissue: Having more dense tissue in your breasts can make it harder to visualize tumors on a mammogram.
  • Getting older: People ages 50 and older are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Reproductive history: Being exposed to reproductive hormones for long periods of time raises your risk of breast cancer. Women who experience early menstrual periods (before age 12) or late menopause (after age 55) have an increased risk. 
  • Alcohol use: Your risk of breast cancer may increase with the number of alcoholic drinks you consume. It's estimated that women who have one alcoholic beverage per day have a 7%–10% increased risk of breast cancer than nondrinkers. Women who consume two to three drinks per day have about a 20% increased risk. 

Management and Treatment After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Once you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you'll meet with your healthcare team to discuss your treatment options. The treatment plan will depend on factors like your age, overall health, and how advanced the cancer is. Treatment options may include:

  • Surgery: Surgery is often the first step in treating breast cancer. Possible side effects include a changed appearance, pain, scarring, infection, and swelling. 

Types of Surgery

The following are the two main surgical options for treating breast cancer:

  • Lumpectomy: The surgeon removes the cancerous tumor while sparing as much breast tissue as possible. This may be an option for people with one tumor or when two or more tumors are located in the same quadrant of the breast.
  • Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the entire breast and surrounding lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation involves using high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. This is often recommended after a lumpectomy surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses medications to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be recommended after surgery.
  • Hormone therapy: Hormones like estrogen cause some types of breast cancer to grow and spread. Hormone therapy blocks these hormones so that the cancer can't use them to grow. 
  • Targeted therapies: Targeted therapies identify and attack specific proteins in cancer cells that cause them to divide and spread. 
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune system response to identify and attack cancer cells. 

Summary 

Breast cancer screening is used to detect breast cancer as early as possible. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. Getting screened regularly can help decrease your chances of dying from this disease.

Breast cancer screening tools include breast exams, ultrasounds, mammograms, and MRIs. Biopsy may be needed to evaluate a breast abnormality. Treatment for breast cancer may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapies, or immunotherapy. 

A Word From Verywell

If you're unsure whether you're ready for a breast cancer screening, talk with your healthcare provider. Everyone's risk of breast cancer is unique, and your doctor can help you decide when to begin regular screenings.

Breast cancer screening can save lives. It's natural to feel nervous about your first mammogram or exam. Talk with your doctor about any concerns you have. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to receive breast cancer testing results?

    Results from a screening mammogram are usually back within two weeks. If you require a repeat mammogram because of an abnormal screening result, the results could come back much sooner. 

  • What should every woman know about breast cancer testing?

    The most important fact about breast cancer screening is that it could save your life. Research shows that women between the ages of 50 and 69 who undergo regular mammograms are less likely to die of breast cancer than those who do not get screening mammograms. 

  • When should a woman get screened for breast cancer?

    It is best to talk with your doctor about the right time for you to start breast cancer screening. According to the U.S Preventive Services Task Force, women between the ages of 40 and 49 should discuss the potential risks and benefits with their doctors. Women 50–74 years old are advised to receive mammograms every two years. Women ages 75 and older are advised to talk with their doctors. 

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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