Early Detection

Listen to Dr. Petty’s comments about 3-D tomography:


Breast Education: The Essentials

Breast cancer will affect an average of one in seven women during their lifetime and is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women. Numerous studies prove that early detection is an important component in the successful treatment of breast cancer. Early detection increases effective treatment options and the possibility of a cure.

According to the American Cancer Society, 100% of stage 1 breast cancers can be successfully treated. All three of the following detection methods should be used:

  • Monthly breast self-examination
  • Yearly clinical breast exam by a healthcare provider
  • Mammograms according to the American Cancer Society guidelines:
    • Baseline by age 40
    • Annual mammograms after age 40


Breast Self-Exams

Monthly breast self-exams can help you know how your breasts normally feel and look, so you can notice any changes. Most breast changes or lumps are not cancerous, but only a health care provider conducting a mammogram or biopsy can tell you for sure. Breast self-exams should be performed at the same time every month, a few days after your menstrual period ends.

You are looking for a lump or any change that stands out as different from the rest of your breast tissue. If you find a lump or other change in your breast, examine the other breast. If both breasts feel the same, the lumpiness is probably normal, but if you have doubts you should get your breasts examined by a medical professional. As you get to know your breasts better by doing breast self-exams, you should be able to tell the difference between what is normal and any noticeable change such as:

  • skin irritation or dimpling
  • nipple pain or retraction (turning inward)
  • redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin
  • a discharge other than breast milk

If you experience any of these changes, see your health care provider promptly.


Breast Density

Breasts are made up of a mixture of fibrous and glandular tissue and fatty tissue. Your breasts are considered dense if you have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue but not much fat. Density may decrease with age, but there is little, if any, change in most women. 

How do I know if I have dense breasts?

Breast density is determined by the radiologist who reads your mammogram. There are four categories of mammographic density. The radiologist assigns each mammogram to one of the categories. Your doctor should be able to tell you whether you have dense breasts based on where you fall on the density scale. (See scale below)

Radiologists classify breast density using a four-level density scale

  • Almost entirely fatty
  • Scattered areas of fibroglandular density
  • Heterogeneously dense

Extremely dense Breast density in the U.S.

  • 10% of women have almost entirely fatty breasts
  • 10% have extremely dense breasts
  • 80% are classified into one of the two middle categories

Why is breast density important?

Having dense breast tissue may increase your risk of getting breast cancer. Dense breasts also make it more difficult for doctors to spot cancer on mammograms. Dense tissue appears white on a mammogram. Lumps, both benign and cancerous, also appear white. So, mammograms can be less accurate in women with dense breasts.

If I have dense breasts, do I still need a mammogram?

Yes. A mammogram is the only medical imaging screening test proven to reduce breast cancer deaths. Many cancers are seen on mammograms even if you have dense breast tissue.

Are there any tests that are better than a mammogram for dense breasts?

In breasts that are dense, cancer can be hard to see on a mammogram. Studies have shown that ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help find breast cancers that can’t be seen on a mammogram. However, both MRI and ultrasound show more findings that are not cancer, which can result in added testing and unnecessary biopsies. Also, the cost of ultrasound and MRI may not be covered by insurance.

What should I do if I have dense breasts? What if I don’t?

If you have dense breasts, please talk to your doctor. Together, you can decide which, if any, additional screening exams are right for you.

If your breasts are not dense, other factors may still place you at increased risk for breast cancer – including a family history of the disease, previous chest radiation treatment for cancer and previous breast biopsies that show you are high risk. Talk to your doctor and discuss your history.

Even if you are at low risk, and have entirely fatty breasts, you should still get an annual mammogram starting at age 40.


Educational Materials

At the Breast Diagnostic Center, it is important to us to educate our community, our family, and our friends about the importance of early detection. The following materials are available to help answer questions and concerns about breast health.


Additional Resources

The American Cancer Society provides guidelines, answers to questions and stories from those who have been touched by cancer.

The creation of the Office of Women’s Health in 1994 by the Food and Drug Administration established a new chapter in the agency's commitment to women's health issues. Since its creation, OWH has established itself as an effective voice for women's health concerns.

The National Cancer Institute provides the latest breast cancer research advances.

The Mammography Saves Lives coalition was founded to reduce confusion regarding when and how often women should receive mammograms. This confusion may cause women to not start getting annual mammograms at age 40 and put them at increased risk of dying from breast cancer.

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