Breast Cancer Screenings by Age: A HealthCentral Explainer

Content Producer

Screening tests are an important part of breast cancer prevention. If cancer is detected early enough, it is treatable. Conflicting studies, however, may have you confused about when or what kind of screening tests you should have. Based on the most recent research, here are the different types of effective screening tests and at what age women should get them.

Screening tests

Mammograms can be used to detect breast cancer in women both with and without symptoms. In the first case, screening mammograms are used, in which two X-ray images are taken of each breast. Diagnostic mammograms are used when a woman has a symptom of breast cancer, such as a lump, nipple discharge, or breast pain.

Clinical breast exams (CBE) are conducted by a health care provider, such as a physician, nurse practitioner, or other medical staff. A CBE involves a provider checking your breasts, first visually and then physically by feeling for any changes or abnormalities.

MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) are used in women with a high risk of breast cancer, including those with gene changes like BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, a family history of breast cancer, or some genetic syndromes (such as Li-Fraumeni or Cowden syndrome).

Future possibilities in screening tests include thermography and tissue sampling, both of which are being studied in clinical trials, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Ages 20-39

Beginning at age 20, women should receive CBEs as part of a routine breast cancer screening in order to detect any possible tumors. CBEs should be conducted every three years until a woman turns 40. Mammograms are not performed on women in this age group because breast cancer rarely occurs in younger women. Younger women are also more likely to have a false positive result from a mammogram, which means that the test result will incorrectly report breast cancer when in fact there may just be a non-cancerous abnormality.

Ages 40-49

In a woman’s 40s, mammograms should be performed in addition to CBEs, and both tests should be conducted every year. As with women ages 20 to 39, there may be false positive results from mammograms in women in their 40s. However, most major health organizations recommend mammography in women in this age group because of the survival benefits.

Ages 50-69

Mammography has clear life-saving benefits for women ages 50 to 69. Studies have shown that regular mammograms reduce risk of dying from breast cancer by 10 to 23 percent in women between ages 50 and 69. Health organizations recommend that women in this age group receive mammograms every one to two years.

Ages 70 and older

Breast cancer risk increases with age and studies have not found mammograms to be less effective in women ages 70 and older. Women in this age group who are in good health should talk to their health care provider to determine if they should have regular mammograms.

What about self-exams?

Breast self-exams should not serve as a substitute for either a mammogram or a CBE, as breast cancer screenings should be conducted by a medical professional. However, women should perform breast self-exams as a part of overall breast self-awareness. Here is what women should look for when conducting a breast self-exam.

General breast self-awareness includes knowing your risk for breast cancer, staying educated about signs and symptoms of breast cancer and making healthy lifestyle choices--in addition to getting the recommended screening tests. Find out your risk by learning your family health history and discussing risk factors with your health care provider. Healthy lifestyle choices for reducing breast cancer risk include maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough exercise, eating a healthy diet and limiting alcohol intake.


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