Women with average risk of developing breast cancer should start getting annual mammograms at age 40. Your physician should also perform a clinical breast exam as part of your annual well-woman exam once you turn 40. It is always recommended that you speak with your doctor about your medical and family history to determine whether you should have a screening mammogram or additional tests at an earlier age.
Along with the information below, you can learn about early detection methods, genetics consultations, clinical trials and more at our breast care centers at Houston Methodist.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
The screenings your physician recommends will depend on your risk factors for developing breast cancer. Keep in mind that having one or more risk factors does not mean you will definitely get the disease, and having no risk factors does not mean you cannot get it.
Studies have linked several factors to the risk for breast cancer:
- Being age 55 or older
- An inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, or in certain other genes (learn more about BRCA1 and BRCA2)
- Personal or family history of breast cancer
- Radiation exposure
- Beginning your period at a younger age
- Having your first child at an older age
- Beginning menopause at an older age
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy
- Consuming more than one alcoholic beverage per day
Breast Self-Exam (BSE)
One of the most basic screenings for breast cancer is one you can do yourself: a breast self-exam. Checking your breasts on a regular basis lets you become familiar with how they normally look and feel, so that you will be more likely to notice any changes.
Doing a breast self-exam takes just a few minutes. You will want to be alert to any of the following changes:
- A lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
- Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
- A change in the size or shape of the breast
- Dimpling or puckering of the skin
- An itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
- Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
- Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
- New pain in one spot that does not go away
If you notice any of the above signs, inform your doctor promptly so an appointment can be scheduled to determine if tests are needed.
Clinical Breast Exam (CBE)
A clinical breast exam should be part of your routine annual well-woman checkup. Your doctor will usually ask you to lie down on the examining table and lift one arm over your head while he or she feels the breast for any abnormalities, such as a lump. The exam is not painful and takes just a few minutes.
Mammography is currently the best screening tool for finding breast cancer. It can find cancers at an early stage, when they are too small to be felt and likely too small to respond to treatment.
Houston Methodist recommends that women with an average risk of breast cancer begin annual mammograms at age 40. If you have additional risk factors — such as a strong family history of breast cancer — your physician may recommend mammograms beginning at an earlier age.
On the day of your mammogram, you will be asked to avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, perfumes, powders or lotions in the breast and underarm area. Ingredients in these products can show up on mammograms and make the films harder to read.
When you arrive for your exam, you can expect the following process, which usually takes about 15 minutes.
- You will be asked to undress from the waist up and will be given a robe to wear while you wait for the technician.
- When the technician is ready, you will be taken to a room with a large machine. The technician will ask you to slip one arm out of your robe and position the breast between two clear plates.
- The technician will step over to a computer screen and ask you to hold your breath while the image is taken.
- The technician will take two or three images per breast from different angles; they may have to retake images that are unclear.
Sometimes the physical pressure in a mammogram can be uncomfortable, but it only lasts for a few minutes. If you experience any pain, be sure to let your technician know.
Following your exam, both you and your referring physician will receive a copy of the results.
Our physicians specialize in managing breast cancer at the following convenient Houston Methodist Cancer Center locations.