Screening for Breast Cancer
Screening patients for breast cancer is the front line in the battle against this disease. Like most cancers, the onset of symptoms does not necessarily indicate that the cancer is at its earliest stages. Because of what we know about the disease as well as its prevalence, national guidelines have been created to screen for breast cancer, even before it causes any symptoms. Because of the increase in breast cancer awareness, better screening, and new technology over the past few decades, women with breast cancer have a better chance of beating the disease with more treatment options available to them.
When Do You Get Screened?
Your screening schedule will be determined after consulting with your primary care physician or specialist. The primary determinants of the screening schedule are based on the risk factors of breast cancer. Those with a higher risk profile will be recommended for more aggressive screening protocols than those with fewer risk factors.
Typically, screening begins at the age of 40 for those with normal breast cancer risk – usually employing a mammogram. Most cancers are found after the age of 50. Other screening methods include:
- Self Breast Exam or SBE. Women of all ages should learn how to examine their breasts on a regular basis. While self-exams are the least reliable screening method, their usefulness is worth discussing with your physician
- Clinical Breast Exam or CBE is an exam by a doctor or other medical professional that looks for abnormal growths in the breasts or the lymph nodes
- For higher-risk patients, MRI may be considered. MRIs are more sensitive than mammograms but have a higher rate of false-positives
Are There Risks of Breast Cancer Screening?
There are typically very few, if any, medical risks associated with being screened for breast cancer. The greatest concern revolves around false positive and false negative results. Inaccurate results are possible with even the most sensitive machinery and the best of radiologists. A false positive often creates an extremely stressful emotional situation for the patient, while a false negative may allow cancerous lesions to grow untreated. For now, these are risks that cannot be avoided.
In all, screening for breast cancer is a very positive development that has saved countless lives. Patients should be aware of their risk factors and should speak to their physician about an appropriate screening schedule for their circumstances. Alabama Public Health organizes free breast cancer screening for eligible women here: http://www.alabamapublichealth.gov/bandc/