Regular breast cancer screenings are an important tool that can detect breast cancer years before symptoms develop. Early detection is key, because success rates are much higher when breast cancer is detected and treated during early stages.

That’s why mammograms are part of standard annual healthcare practices for women over 40.

Women who are at higher risk than the general population for breast cancer should begin having regular screenings earlier and should have a breast MRI in addition to a mammogram.

This article takes a look at screening methods and recommendations, and what to do next if a screening detects something.

Detecting breast cancer early reduces the chance of death from breast cancer. Breast cancer is much easier to treat and has much better survival rates when caught in its early stages. That’s why getting regular screenings is an important part of women’s healthcare.

According to the American Cancer Society, women at average risk for breast cancer should follow these screening guidelines:

AgeRecommendations
between 40 and 44can choose to start having annual mammograms
between 45 and 54are strongly encouraged to have an annual mammogram
over 55are encouraged to have a mammogram every 2 years, but can choose to still have an annual mammogram (doctors recommend that regular screenings continue as long as the patient remains in good health)

Women at an above average risk of breast cancer are strongly encouraged to have screenings more often and possibly begin earlier than age 40.

Screenings should include both mammograms and breast MRIs. Talk with a doctor about your individual risk factors and determine an appropriate screening plan for you.

Women are considered to be at average risk of breast cancer if they do not have known risk factors, such as genetic mutations or a family history of breast cancer.

Those who have these risk factors are considered to be at a higher lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. More regular screening is required to monitor this higher risk.

Risk factors that put you at higher risk are detailed below. Having any of these risk factors means you should get a mammogram and breast MRI annually starting at 30. A medical professional can help you assess your risk if you’re unsure.

Genetics

One of the biggest known risk factors for breast cancer is having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. This gene mutation is hereditary. It leads to abnormal cell growth and can lead to breast cancer.

Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation have up to a 7 in 10 chance of developing breast cancer before they turn 80. This risk goes up for women with family members who’ve developed breast cancer.

Family history

Women with a family history of breast cancer have a higher chance of developing breast cancer themselves. Having a first-degree female relative — such as a mother, sister, or daughter — with breast cancer nearly doubles a woman’s risk for breast cancer. Two first-degree relatives with breast cancer almost triples the risk.

Other family history factors that can increase risk include:

  • having a parent, sibling, or child who has known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
  • having a father, brother, or son with breast cancer

Radiation therapy to the chest

Women who received radiation to their chest as part of treatment for another type of cancer are at an increased risk for breast cancer.

The risk is highest for those who received treatment as teenagers or during their twenties. Radiation treatments to the chest in women over 40 don’t appear to increase the risk for breast cancer.

Rare inherited disorders

Some inherited conditions are linked to a higher chance for breast cancer. Those with any of these conditions, or those who have a parent, sibling, or child with one of these conditions, have an increased risk. This includes:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Cowden syndrome
  • Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome

Dense breast tissue

Having dense breast tissue is linked to a higher risk for developing breast cancer. Breast density is detected on mammograms. It’s not related to how breasts feel or look.

Your mammogram results normally note if you have dense breast tissue. You can ask your medical professional about it if you can’t tell from your results.

Although dense breast tissue is linked with an increased risk for breast cancer, additional screening isn’t always needed. Not all doctors and experts recommend yearly breast MRIs for women with dense breast tissue. Your healthcare professional can help you decide what screening frequency is best for you.

Breast cancer lumps are detected through multiple types of screenings. Some screenings, such as self-checks, can help you keep an eye on your overall breast health. Others, such as breast MRIs, provide detailed images that help doctors detect cancer.

Self-checks

Self-checks can help you keep track of how your breasts look and feel.

Being familiar with the normal shape, weight, and texture of your breasts can help you notice any changes. If you do notice any changes, such as hard lumps, report these changes to a medical professional immediately.

Clinical breast examination

There are no set recommendations for how often to have a clinical breast examination. However, they can be used to feel for any irregularities or check out any concerns you might have.

A clinical breast examination is a good time to ask questions about your personal breast cancer risk and early detection.

Mammograms

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray. It takes images of the breasts that are used to detect changes in the breasts that might be early-stage cancer.

Mammograms can find cancer years before someone has any symptoms.

Early detection means the cancer is identified when it can be treated more easily and successfully. Regular mammograms are a highly effective early detection screening method.

However, not every breast tissue abnormality found by a mammogram is cancer, and you’ll likely need more testing for most findings. Additionally, mammograms do miss some breast cancers.

3D mammography

3D mammography, also known as digital breast tomosynthesis, is a newer type of mammogram technology. 3D mammography appears to produce clearer images than traditional mammograms.

Studies have shown that it detects more cancers, requires less follow-up imaging, and is a better diagnostic test for dense breast tissue.

Ultrasound

Breast ultrasounds use soundwaves to create images of the inside of breasts. These images can show breast changes that are difficult to spot on mammograms.

They can also tell the difference between various types of growth and changes. For instance, an ultrasound can detect the difference between a fluid-filled cyst and a solid mass.

Ultrasounds might be used to reexamine an area that was seen on a mammogram but couldn’t be fully identified. They may also be used to look for lumps that can be felt but weren’t seen on the mammogram. Ultrasounds can be useful for dense breast tissue that might not be clear in mammogram images.

Additionally, ultrasounds are often used during a biopsy. The images they create can guide a needle so that cells can be removed and tested for cancer.

MRI

A breast MRI gives a clearer picture of the inside of the breast than a mammogram. It might spot cancers that a mammogram misses. That’s why it’s recommended for those who are at a higher risk for breast cancer.

However, MRIs can also detect changes that aren’t cancerous. This often leads to unneeded tests and biopsies, and it’s why those who are at average risk for breast cancer don’t generally have breast MRIs.

The next steps after a breast cancer screening depend on your results. No follow-up steps are needed if nothing was detected on your mammogram or breast MRI.

If the mammogram or MRI shows something the doctors want to see more closely, they’ll let you know what it might mean and what you should do next.

Screening results

There are many reasons your screening might detect something. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. In some cases, it might just be that the image was unclear. In other cases, you could have a cyst or noncancerous mass.

You’ll have a second mammogram done that focuses on the area of concern. You might also have an ultrasound or MRI to get a closer look at any abnormal findings.

These diagnostic tests will let doctors know if any further testing is needed. Sometimes, the diagnostic tests will show that your screening results were nothing to worry about.

In other cases, the tests might confirm there’s an abnormality that needs additional testing. When this happens, you’ll have a biopsy to check for cancer cells.

On average, it takes about 7 to 10 days to get the results from a breast biopsy. Timing can vary, depending on the hospital or lab that’s processing the biopsy.

A biopsy result might indicate that no cancer was found or that you need to move forward with cancer treatment.

Consulting a doctor

You might want to talk with a doctor about your risk for breast cancer, even if the results of your screening are clear.

You can ask any questions you might have about your screening results, your overall breast health, and recommendations for early breast cancer detection.

The first and most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass in your breast tissue. Lumps that are hard and painless are most likely to be cancerous.

However, it’s important to discuss any lumps or breast changes you may have with a doctor.

Other symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • breast swelling
  • breast pain
  • nipple pain
  • nipple inversion
  • skin dimpling
  • nipple discharge
  • skin on your breast or nipple that’s red or flaky
  • swollen lymph nodes

Regular breast cancer screenings can detect cancer at early stages, when it’s much easier to treat and cure. That’s why getting a yearly mammogram starting around age 40 is such an important part of healthcare for women.

However, those who are at an increased risk for breast cancer are advised to start breast cancer earlier and to have a yearly breast MRI in addition to a mammogram. This includes those who:

  • are at high genetic risk of breast cancer
  • have a family history of breast cancer
  • have received radiation treatments to their chest
  • have certain genetic conditions.

Don’t hesitate to talk with a doctor if you’re not sure which early screening recommendations to follow.