October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is an annual event aimed at raising awareness about the impact of breast cancer. Although October is almost over, you still have the opportunity to help raise awareness in your family or community. Breast cancer that is detected early, when it is still small and has not spread, can be treated more easily and more effectively. Getting regular screening tests is the most reliable way to find breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages.
Let’s talk about some background first.
Breast cancer remains the leading cancer among women and the primary cause of mortality. According to The National Breast Cancer Foundation, every ten minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer across the globe.
Breast cancers that are identified by screening tests are more likely to be smaller and limited to the breast. The size of a breast cancer, and how much it has spread outside the breast are some of the most vital factors in determining a woman’s response to treatment and ultimate survival odds.
What is a screening test?
A screening test in the medical sense is defined as a test or exam that is used to detect or rule out disease in a person who has no symptoms. If you have a symptom that prompts a test, such as a lump in your breast, any test done to evaluate that symptom is considered a diagnostic test, not a screening test. Screening tests are designed and recommended to find diseases when they are still too small to cause any symptoms that you would notice with the aim of improving survival and decreasing the burden of disease.
What are the screening tests used for breast cancer?
A mammogram is a special X-ray of the breast done with a low amount of radiation compared to other X-rays. Mammograms can often find breast changes due to cancer years before they would cause symptoms. Women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found early, are less likely to need aggressive treatment, and are more likely to be cured.
Studies have shown that regular annual mammogram screening of women with no symptoms of breast cancer has lowered the number of women who die from breast cancer by about 30 percent.
Mammograms are not perfect though; they do miss some cancers and they sometimes find things that look suspicious but turn out not to be cancer. They can result in additional tests to determine if something is or is not cancer.
There is a new type of mammogram called a 3D mammogram. It is more expensive than the standard (2D) mammogram, and it is not available at all breast imaging centers. It is now becoming more commonly available. This type of mammogram appears to lower the chance of needing to go back for additional tests and appears to find more cancers. It also appears to do a better job of screening on women with dense breast tissue.
Clinical breast exam and self-exam of the breast
Although this used to be routinely recommended, research has not shown clear benefit from regular breast exams, either by a health care provider or being done by women on themselves. However, women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and they should report any changes to a health care provider right away.
Although the research does not support a recommendation for routine breast exams in all women, that does not mean that they should never be done. For instance, if a woman is at high risk for breast cancer, after discussion with their doctor, they may decide that regular breast exams by their doctor is warranted. Some women prefer to do regular breast exams at home to keep track of how their breasts look and feel.
Next week we will talk more specifically about the recommended guidelines for breast cancer screening in women.
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Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor