It is very important for you to know that if you have found anything abnormal or if there is any noticeable change since the last examination, you must consult your doctor without any delay. You are not the one who makes the diagnosis; your role is only to detect any of the changes during self-examination.
Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) as part of a periodic (regular) health exam by a health professional, at least every 3 years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health professional every year.
CBE is a complement to mammograms and an opportunity for women and their doctor or nurse to discuss changes in their breasts, early detection testing, and factors in the woman’s history that might make her more likely to have breast cancer.
There may be some benefit in having the CBE shortly before the mammogram. The exam should include instruction for the purpose of getting more familiar with your own breasts. Women should also be given information about the benefits and limitations of CBE and breast self-exam (BSE). Breast cancer risk is very low for women in their 20s and gradually increases with age. Women should be told to promptly report any new breast symptoms to a health professional.
Ultrasound has become a valuable tool to use along with mammography because it is widely available and less expensive than other options, such as MRI. The use of ultrasound instead of mammograms for breast cancer screening is not recommended. Usually, breast ultrasound is used to target a specific area of concern found on the mammogram. Ultrasound helps distinguish between cysts (fluid-filled sacs) and solid masses and sometimes can help tell the difference between benign and cancerous tumours.
Ultrasound may be most helpful in women with very dense breasts. Clinical trials are now looking at the benefits and risks of adding breast ultrasound to screening mammograms in women with dense breasts and a higher risk of breast cancer.
Women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
Current evidence supporting mammograms is even stronger than in the past. In particular, recent evidence has confirmed that mammograms offer substantial benefit for women in their 40s. Women can feel confident about the benefits associated with regular mammograms for finding cancer early. However, mammograms also have limitations. A mammogram will miss some cancers, and it sometimes leads to follow up of findings that are not cancer, including biopsies.
Women should be told about the benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked with regular screening. Mammograms can miss some cancers. But despite their limitations, they remain a very effective and valuable tool for decreasing suffering and death from breast cancer.
Mammograms for older women should be based on the individual, her health, and other serious illnesses, such as congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and moderate-to-severe dementia. Age alone should not be the reason to stop having regular mammograms. As long as a woman is in good health and would be a candidate for treatment, she should continue to be screened with a mammogram.
Women at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get an MRI and a mammogram every year. This includes women who:
Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of about 20% to 25% or greater, according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history.
Have a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.
Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, but have not had genetic testing themselves.
Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years.
Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with one of these syndromes.
A biopsy is done when mammograms, other imaging tests, or the physical exam finds a breast change (or abnormality) that is possibly cancer. A biopsy is the only way to tell if cancer is really present.
During a biopsy, a sample of the suspicious area is removed to be looked at under a microscope, by a specialized doctor with many years of training called a pathologist. The pathologist sends your doctor a report that gives a diagnosis for each sample taken. Information in this report will be used to help manage your care.
There are several types of biopsies, such as fine needle aspiration biopsy, core (large needle) biopsy, and surgical biopsy. Each has its pros and cons. The choice of which to use depends on your specific situation. Some of the factors your doctor will consider include how suspicious the lesion appears, how large it is, where in the breast it is located, how many lesions are present, other medical problems you might have, and your personal preferences. You might want to discuss the pros and cons of different biopsy types with your doctor.
In a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, the doctor uses a very thin, hollow needle attached to a syringe to withdraw (aspirate) a small amount of tissue from a suspicious area, which is then looked at under a microscope. The needle used for an FNA biopsy is thinner than the one used for blood tests.
If the area to be biopsied can be felt, the needle can be guided into the area of the breast change while the doctor is feeling (palpating) it.
If the lump can’t be felt easily, the doctor might use ultrasound to watch the needle on a screen as it moves toward and into the mass.
A local anaesthetic (numbing medicine) may or may not be used. Because such a thin needle is used for the biopsy, the process of getting the anaesthetic may actually be more uncomfortable than the biopsy itself.
Once the needle is in place, fluid is drawn out. If the fluid is clear, the lump is probably a benign cyst. Bloody or cloudy fluid can mean either a benign cyst or, very rarely, a cancer. If the lump is solid, small tissue fragments are drawn out. A pathologist will look at the biopsy tissue or fluid under a microscope to determine if it is cancerous.
FNA biopsy is the easiest type of biopsy to have, but it has some disadvantages. It can sometimes miss a cancer if the needle is not placed among the cancer cells. And even if cancer cells are found, it is usually not possible to determine if the cancer is invasive. In some cases there may not be enough cells to perform some of the other lab tests that are routinely done on breast cancer specimens. If the FNA biopsy does not provide a clear diagnosis, or your doctor is still suspicious, a second biopsy or a different type of biopsy should be done.