Health Watch -- Detecting Breast Cancer

Health Watch is a Public Service of the  Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

The best way to save your life is to detect cancer early because the sooner cancer is detected, the more likely you are to have a complete recovery.

Dr. Phil Evans, director of the Center for Breast Care at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, says the number one way to reduce your chances of dying from breast cancer is to have regular mammograms.

Women at normal risk for breast cancer should have their first baseline mammogram at age 40, then annual mammograms every year after that. Women at higher risk should talk to their doctors about how early – and how often – they should have screening mammograms.

Women should also practice monthly self exams and have an annual physical exam, but neither of those techniques can beat mammography for early detection. In most cases, suspicious abnormality will show up on a mammogram long before it can be felt as a lump.

Other detection methods are being studied. Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, may be used in some cases to evaluate cancer patients to determine the extent of the cancer, but MRIs have not proved to be an effective screening technique for helping reduce breast cancer mortality. Ultrasound, a proven useful tool in characterizing breast masses, is now being researched for cancer screening. For very high-risk patients, a technique called ductal lavage can detect cancer cells at the very earliest stages, but this technique is invasive and painful.