Breast Examination by a Health Professional. Women ages 20 - 49 should have a physical examination by a health professional every 1 - 2 years. Those over age 50 should be examined annually.
Self-Examinations. Women have been encouraged to perform a self-examination each month, but some studies have reported no difference in mortality rates between women who do self-examination and those who do not. This does not mean women should stop attempting self-examinations, but they should not replace the annual examination done by a health professional. Breast awareness may be as helpful as formal self exams as long as women who notice a breast abnormality obtain a professional evaluation promptly.
1. Pick a time of the month that is easy to remember and perform self-examination at that time each month. The breast has normal patterns of thickness and lumpiness that change within a monthly period, and a consistently scheduled examination will help differentiate between what is normal from abnormal. However, many doctors now recommend “breast awareness” rather than formal monthly self-examinations.
2. Stand in front of a mirror. Breasts should be basically the same size (one may be slightly larger than the other). Check for changes or redness in the nipple area. Look for changes in the appearance of the skin. With hands on the hips, push the pelvis forward and pull the shoulders back and observe the breasts for irregularities. Repeat the observation with hands behind the head. Move each arm and shoulder forward.
3. Lie down on the back with a rolled towel under one shoulder. Apply lotion or bath oil over the breast area. Using the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th finger pads (not tips) held together, make dime-sized circles. Press lightly first to feel the breast area, then press harder using a circular motion.
Using this motion, start from the collarbone and move downward to underneath the breast. Shift the fingers slightly over, slightly overlapping the previously checked region, and work upward back to the collarbone. Repeat this up-and-down examination until the entire breast area has been examined. Be sure to cover the entire area from the collarbone to the bottom of the breast area and from the middle of the chest to the armpits. Move the towel under the other shoulder and repeat the procedure.
Examine the nipple area, by gently lifting and squeezing it and checking for discharge.
4. Repeat step 3 in an upright position. (The shower is the best place for this, using plenty of soap.)
Note: A lump can be any size or shape and can move around or remain fixed. Of special concern are specific or unusual lumps that appear to be different from the normal varying thicknesses in the breast.
Monthly breast self-exams should always include: visual inspection (with and without a mirror) to note any changes in contour or texture, and manual inspection in standing and reclining positions to note any unusual lumps or thicknesses.Click the icon to see an image of a breast self-exam.
Current Recommendations for Screening. Mammograms are very effective low-radiation screening methods for breast cancer. There is, however, debate on when women should begin to have mammograms and how frequently they should have them.
Most major professional groups, including The American Cancer Society and The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommend that women have a mammogram every 1 - 2 years starting at age 40.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends:
- For women ages 40 - 49 years, the USPSTF does not recommend routine screening mammography. The decision to screen women in this age group should be made on a case-by-case basis, taking the patient's values regarding specific benefits and harms into account.
- For women ages 50 - 74 years, the USPSTF recommends that screening mammography be performed every other year.
Given the disagreement among experts, women, (particularly those in their 40s), should discuss the risks and benefits of mammography with their doctors, and then base their decisions on family history, general health, and personal values.
Mammograms in younger women produce a relatively high rate of false-positive results (when the test falsely indicates breast cancer), and there is a risk of radiation exposure and potentially unnecessary biopsies or surgeries. However, mammograms can help catch tumors while they are in their earliest and most treatable stages. The most deadly types of breast cancer tend to occur in women in their 40s.
After a woman reaches age 50, her risk for developing breast cancer increases. (Women over age 65 account for most new cases of breast cancer.) Women with risk factors for breast cancer, including a close family member with the disease, should consider having annual mammograms starting 10 years earlier than the age at which the relative was diagnosed.Click the icon to see an image of a mammogram.
Other Imaging Techniques
Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Ultrasound. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound techniques can detect very small tumors (less than half an inch). However, they are expensive and time-consuming procedures, and ultrasound may yield more false-positive results. Nevertheless, some doctors believe they are important in identifying small tumors missed on mammography in women who are receiving lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgeries. Such findings allow surgeons to remove the optimal amount of abnormal tissue. Ultrasound may be particularly helpful for women with dense breast tissue who show signs of breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends that high-risk women have an MRI of their breast performed with their annual mammogram, including those who have:
- A BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation
- A first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, even if they have yet to be tested themselves
- A lifetime risk of breast cancer that has been scored at 20 - 25% or greater based on various risk assessment tools that evaluate family history and other factors
- Had radiation to the chest between ages 10 - 30
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or may have one of these genetic syndromes based on a history in a first-degree relative
For women who have had cancer diagnosed in one breast, MRIs can also be very helpful for detecting hidden tumors in the other breast. An important study reported that MRI scans of women who were diagnosed with cancer in one breast detected over 90% of cancers in the other breast that had been previously missed by mammography or clinical breast exam. Currently, few women who are diagnosed with cancer in one breast are offered an MRI of the other breast. Some doctors advocate MRIs for all women newly diagnosed with breast cancer; others oppose this view. MRI scans may be most useful for younger women with breast cancer who have dense breast tissue that may obscure tumors from mammography readings. MRIs are less likely to be helpful for older women with early tumors in one breast and clear mammography readings in the other.
It is very important that women have MRIs at qualified centers that perform many of these procedures each year. MRI is a complicated procedure and requires special equipment and experienced radiologists. MRI facilities should also be able to offer biopsies when suspicious findings are detected.
Scintimammography. In scintimammography, a radioactive chemical is injected into the circulatory system, which is then selectively taken up by the tumor and revealed on mammograms. This method is used for women who have had abnormal mammograms or for women who have dense breast tissue. It is not used for regular screening or as an alternative to mammography.
A definitive diagnosis of breast cancer can be made only by a biopsy (a microscopic examination of a tissue sample of the suspicious area).
Click the icon to see an image of breast biopsy.
- When a lump can be felt and is suspicious for cancer on mammography, an excisional biopsy may be recommended. This biopsy is a surgical procedure for removing the suspicious tissue and typically requires general anesthesia.
- A core biopsy involves a small incision and the insertion of a spring-loaded hollow needle that removes several samples. The patient needs only a local anesthetic.
- A wire localization biopsy may be performed if mammography detects abnormalities, but there is no lump. With this procedure, using mammography as a guide, the doctor inserts a small wire hook through a hollow needle and into the suspicious tissue. The needle is withdrawn, and the hook is used by the surgeon to locate and remove the lesion. The patient may receive local or general anesthesia.
- A vacuum-assisted device may be used for some biopsies. This uses a single probe through which a vacuum is used to draw out tissue. It allows several samples to be taken without having to remove and re-insert the probe.
Final analysis of the breast tissue may take several days.
Sentinel Node Biopsy
The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node that cancer cells are likely to spread to from the primary tumor (the original site of the cancer). Sentinel node biopsy is a procedure that examines the sentinel node to determine if cancer has spread.Click the icon to see an image of a sentinel node biopsy.
Sentinel node biopsy involves:
- The procedure uses an injection of a tiny amount of a tracer, either a radioactively-labeled substance (radioisotope) or a blue dye, into the tumor site.
- The tracer or dye then flows through the lymphatic system into the sentinel node. This is the first lymph node to which any cancer would spread.
- The sentinel lymph node and possibly one or two others are then removed.
- If they do not show any signs of cancer, it is highly likely that the remaining lymph nodes will be cancer free, making further surgery unnecessary.
Patients who have a sentinel node biopsy tend to have better arm function and a shorter hospital stay than those who have an axillary node biopsy. The American Society of Clinical Oncology's guidelines recommend sentinel node biopsy instead of axillary lymph node dissection for women with early stage breast cancer who do not have nodes that can be felt during a physical exam.
If the sentinel node biopsy finds evidence that cancer has spread, the next diagnostic step is to find out how far it has spread. To do this, the doctor performs a procedure called an axillary lymphadenectomy, which partially or completely removes the lymph nodes in the armpit beside the affected breast (called axillary lymph nodes). It may require a hospital stay of 1 - 2 days.Click the icon to see an image of the axillary lymph nodes.
Once the lymph nodes are removed, they are analyzed to determine whether subsequent treatment needs to be more or less aggressive:
- If no cancer is found in the lymph nodes, the condition is referred to as node negative breast cancer. The chances are good that the cancer has not spread and is still local.
- If cancer cells are present in the lymph nodes, the cancer is called node positive. Their presence increases the possibility that the cancer has spread microscopically to other areas of the body. In such cases, however, it is still not known if the cancer has metastasized beyond the lymph nodes or, if so, to what extent. The doctor may perform further tests to see if the cancer has spread to the bone (bone scan), lungs (x-ray or CT scan) or brain (MRI or CT scan).
Side effects of the procedure may include increased risk for infection and pain, swelling in the arm from fluid build-up, and impaired sensation and restricted movement in the affected arm.