Finding breast cancer early and getting state-of-the-art cancer treatment are two of the most important strategies for preventing deaths from breast cancer. Breast cancer that’s found early, when it’s small and has not spread, is easier to treat successfully. Getting regular screening tests is the most reliable way to find breast cancer early. The American Cancer Society has screening guidelines for women at average risk of breast cancer, and for those at high risk for breast cancer.
Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease in people who don’t have any symptoms. The goal of screening tests for breast cancer is to find it early, before it causes symptoms (like a lump in the breast that can be felt). Early detection means finding and diagnosing a disease earlier than if you’d waited for symptoms to start.
Breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and less likely to have spread outside the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis (outlook) of a woman with this disease.
American Cancer Society screening recommendations for women at average breast cancer risk:
These guidelines are for women at average risk for breast cancer. For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, or a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer (such as in a BRCA gene), and has not had chest radiation therapy before the age of 30. (See below for guidelines for women at high risk.)
- Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
- Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
- Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.
All women should understand what to expect when getting a mammogram for breast cancer screening – what the test can and cannot do.
Clinical breast exams are not recommended for breast cancer screening among average-risk women at any age.
American Cancer Society screening recommendations for women at high risk:
Women who are at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get a breast MRI and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30. 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 (based on having had genetic testing)
- Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, and 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
The American Cancer Society recommends against MRI screening for women whose lifetime risk of breast cancer is less than 15%.