4 Ways to Detect Breast Cancer Early

At the right age, these screening tests may improve prognosis

Early breast cancer detection is when cancer is found before it spreads (metastasizes) to areas other than the breast and lymph nodes in the armpit. Early detection is crucial as it is easier to treat and has a 99% survival rate when found and treated early.

There are multiple ways to detect breast cancer early, including through routine screenings and tests, such as mammograms and physical breast exams.

Learn about how to detect breast cancer early, the importance of routine screenings, and more.

Woman with a healthcare provider getting a mammogram.

Helen King / Getty Images

How to Detect Breast Cancer Early

Finding and treating breast cancer early is one of the best ways to improve outcomes. You can do this by regularly checking for possible signs of breast cancer with exams and tests.

Breast cancer screening methods include:

Routine Mammogram

A mammogram is a test that uses an X-ray machine to take images of the breast.

Different types of mammograms include:

  • Screening mammogram (a routine procedure to check for possible breast cancer)
  • Diagnostic mammogram (used as a diagnostic tool when breast cancer symptoms are present)
  • Three-dimensional (3D) mammogram (provides more detailed images of the breast from more angles)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging uses a machine with magnets to take images of the body. A breast MRI takes images of the breast for women at an increased risk of developing breast cancer and those with specific breast characteristics, such as those with dense breast tissue.

While this tool can help detect breast cancer early, it should only be used in conjunction with other tools, such as mammograms, because it is more likely to produce false positives (incorrectly indicating you have breast cancer when you don't).

Clinical Breast Exam (CBE)

A clinical breast exam is when a healthcare provider physically checks for breast lumps and signs of cancer by pressing on the breast with their hands. This is often completed as part of a routine visit with an obstetrician-gynecologist (ob-gyn).

However, clinical breast exams should not be the only screening tool for early breast cancer detection because this method may not detect possible signs of cancer until after symptoms appear.

Breast Self-Exam (BSE)

A breast self-exam is when a person physically checks their own breasts for lumps and signs of cancer by pressing on the breast with their hands. It is recommended that women do a breast self-exam every month.

While this should not take the place of other screening methods, such as routine mammograms, women should be aware of how their breasts look and feel to help detect new lumps and other changes or signs of cancer.

Asymptomatic Early Breast Cancer

"Asymptomatic" is a medical term that means there are no symptoms or other signs that a person has a disease. Early breast cancer is breast cancer that has not spread to areas of the body outside the breast or lymph nodes in the armpit next to the breast.

Asymptomatic early breast cancer falls into both categories, meaning it has not spread, and the person has not begun to experience symptoms, such as discomfort, swelling, or nipple discharge. It is possible to have asymptomatic metastatic breast cancer, which means there are no signs or symptoms of cancer, but it has already spread to other areas.

Symptom Presentation

The specific symptoms of breast cancer vary by person. Some people discover breast cancer before symptoms appear through routine screenings, such as mammograms. Finding a lump in the breast that was not there before is the most common early sign of breast cancer. Lumps are likely to have irregular, rough edges rather than be smooth and even; they can be painful but often are not.

Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Breast swelling or change in size
  • Changes in the breast not related to puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause
  • Dimpling of the skin on or around the breast
  • Discharge from the nipple that is not breastmilk
  • Lump, bump, or mass in the breast
  • Lymph node swelling in the armpit or near the breast
  • A painful nipple turned inward, or with skin that is dry, flaking, thickened, or red
  • Pain or tenderness in the breast

Recent Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Next Steps

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be challenging. It is important to remember that breast cancer is treatable, and the survival rates are high, especially when it is detected early.

Treatment options for breast cancer are available and include the following:

Be sure to talk with your healthcare providers, such as an oncologist, about testing, treatment, and more, following a breast cancer diagnosis.


Early detection of breast cancer can help improve outcomes, including survival rates. Routine screening and testing are essential to detect breast cancer early, before it spreads, and before signs or symptoms are present.

Screening and testing can include routine mammograms, breast MRIs, and physical breast exams by yourself or by a healthcare provider. If breast cancer is diagnosed, it is important to work with a team of healthcare providers, including an oncologist. Breast cancer is a treatable condition with high survival rates, especially when detected early.

A Word From Verywell

Many challenges can come with a breast cancer diagnosis. It is important to remember that this is a treatable condition and survival rates are high, up to 99% when detected early. If you or someone you know suspects or has been diagnosed with breast cancer, help is available. Reach out to a healthcare provider, such as an oncologist, for support.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What's the earliest they can find breast cancer?

    Breast cancer can be detected by mammogram and other testing years before it could be found by feeling a mass. If cancer is detected early through routine screening and testing, treatment can start years earlier, too.

  • How does early breast cancer detection affect survival rate?

    Finding breast cancer sooner increases the chances of being detected before it spreads to other areas, making it more challenging to treat. The overall survival rate for breast cancer is 90%, which increases to nearly 100% when detected early.

  • What are the early warning signs of breast cancer?

    The most common early sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast or armpit that wasn't there before. Other early signs include changes in the breast or nipple, discharge from the nipple that isn't breastmilk, or nipple or breast pain. However, sometimes there are no signs, which is why routine testing is essential.

22 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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By Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH
Dr. Ashley Olivine is a health psychologist and public health professional with over a decade of experience serving clients in the clinical setting and private practice. She has also researched a wide variety psychology and public health topics such as the management of health risk factors, chronic illness, maternal and child wellbeing, and child development.