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preventive health services

Breast Cancer Health Screenings

Why is this important?

Breast cancer screenings are recommended for women beginning at age 50. The risk of breast cancer increases above this age. Women age 50 to 75 are recommended to obtain a mammogram every two years. Women with a higher risk for breast cancer should discuss the starting age of screening and frequency of the mammograms. Your physician may recommend an earlier age to start breast cancer screening or more frequently than every two years.

Not counting some kinds of skin cancer, breast cancer in the United States is:

  • The most common cancer in women no matter your race or ethnicity.
  • The most common cause of death from cancer among Hispanic women.
  • The second most common cause of death from cancer among white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American/Alaska Native women.

What are the risks?

Having a mammogram is uncomfortable for most women. Some women find it painful. A mammogram takes only a few minutes and the discomfort is over soon. What you feel depends on the skill of the technologist, the size of your breast and how much they need to be pressed. Your breast may be more sensitive if you are about to get or have your period. A doctor with special training called a radiologist will read your mammogram. He or she will look at the X-ray for early signs of breast cancer or other problems.

After your mammogram, you may need to have additional tests. Your physician or the specialist who reviews your X-ray may recommend one of the following.

  • Breast Ultrasound. A machine uses sound waves to make detailed pictures called sonograms of areas inside the breast.
  • Diagnostic Mammogram. If you have a problem in your breast, such as lumps or if an area of the breast looks abnormal on a screening mammogram, doc- tors may have you get another mammogram called a diagnostic mammo- gram. This is a more detailed X-ray of the breast.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). A kind of body scan that uses a magnet linked to a computer. The MRI scan will make detailed pictures from inside the breast.
  • Biopsy. This is a test that removes tissue or liquid from the breast to be looked at under a microscope and do more testing. There are different kinds of biopsies such as fine-needle aspiration, core biopsy or open biopsy. The number of individuals needed to be screened to find one case of breast cancer is 550.

How does the mammography screening or test work?

You will stand in front of a special X-ray machine. A technologist will pace your breast on a clear plastic plate. Another plate will firmly press your breast from above. The plates will hold the breast still while the X-ray is being taken. You will typically feel some pressure. The other breast will be X-rayed in the same way. The steps are then repeated to make a side view of each breast. You will then wait while the technologist checks the four X-rays to make sure the pictures are ready for review and do not need to be redone. Keep in mind that the technologist cannot tell you the results of your mammogram.

If your mammogram results are normal you should continue to be screened every two years or as directed by your physician. Mammograms work best when they can be compared with previous ones. This allows your doctor to compare them to look for changes in your breast.

If your mammogram results are abnormal, do not panic. An abnormal mammogram does not always mean that there is cancer. But, you will need to have addi- tional mammogram tests or other exams before the doctor can tell for sure. You may also be referred to a breast specialist or a surgeon. It does not necessarily mean you have cancer or need surgery. These doctors are experts in diagnosing breast problems.

Tips for your mammogram

  • Try not to have your mammogram the week before you get your period or during your period. Your breast may be tender or swollen.
  • On the day of your mammogram, don’t wear deodorant, perfume or powder. These products can show up as white spots on the X-ray.
  • Some women prefer to wear a top with a skirt or pants, instead of a dress. You will need to undress from your waist up for the mammogram.


If breast cancer is diagnosed other tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. Whether the cancer is only in the breast, is found in the lymph nodes under your arm, or has spread outside the breast determines your stage of breast cancer.

Frequently asked questions about breast cancer screening

How will I get the results of my mammogram?
You will usually get the results within a few weeks. A radiologist reads your mam- mogram and then reports the results to you or your doctor. If there is a concern you will hear from the mammography facility earlier. Contact your physician of- fice or the mammography facility if you do not receive a report of your results within 30 days.

How can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?
Many factors can influence your breast cancer risk. Most women who develop breast cancer do not have any known risk factors or a history of the disease in their families. However, you can help lower your risk of breast cancer in the following ways:

  • Exercise regularly (at least four hours per week).
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Don’t drink alcohol or limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one per day.
  • Avoid exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer, also called carcinogens.
  • Try to reduce your exposure to radiation during medical tests like mammo- grams, X-rays, CT scans and PET scans.
  • Breast feed your babies if possible.

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you and when you should have them done.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA I and BRCA 2 genes, you may have a higher breast cancer risk. Talk to your doctor about these ways of reducing your risk:

  • Antiestrogens or other medicines that block or decrease estrogen in your body.
  • Prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy (removal of breast tissue)
  • Prophylactic (preventive) removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

It is important that you know your family history and talk to your doctor about screening and other ways you can lower your risk.

What are the different screening tests?
Breast cancer screening tests check a woman’s breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. Three main tests are used to screen the breasts for cancer. Talk to your doctor about which tests are right for you and when you should have them.

  • Mammogram
    A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to test and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer.
  • Clinical Breast Exam
    A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes.
  • Breast Self-Exam
    A breast self-exam is when you check your own breasts for lumps or changes in the size or shape of the breast, or other changes in the beast or underarm (armpit).

What tests to choose and where to go to get screened

Having a clinical breast exam or a breast self-exam have not been found to decrease the risk of dying from breast cancer. At this time, the best way to find breast cancer is with a mammogram. If you choose to have clinical breast exams and to perform breast self-exams, be sure you also get mammograms regularly.

Most likely, you can get screened for breast cancer at an MUSC Health clinic, hospital or doctor’s office. Call your doctor’s office. They can help you schedule an appointment. Insurance companies pay for the cost of a preventive breast cancer screening tests.