Breast Cancer Detection 

Early breast cancer detection may improve your chances of successful treatment. Houston Methodist’s highly trained physicians and breast cancer care team offer resources you need for early cancer detection, providing educational materials, guidance and advanced screening technologies that can help detect and diagnose abnormalities.

Understanding your risk factors and getting screened can improve opportunities for early diagnosis, treatment and a possible cure.

The type and frequency of screenings your doctor recommends will depend on your breast cancer risk factors. Having risk factors does not mean you are a definite candidate for disease, and lack of risk factors does not mean you cannot get breast cancer. 

Click on the following topics to learn about early breast cancer detection and diagnosis:

Breast Self-examination (BSE) 
A breast self-exam is among the most basic breast cancer screenings. Regularly checking your breasts familiarizes you with their look and feel, so you will more likely notice changes. Most doctors recommend you perform monthly BSEs in your 20s.

A BSE takes a few minutes. You should perform the exam at about the same point in your menstrual cycle to account for changes in your breasts. This also makes it easier to remember to regularly perform the exam. Be alert to changes, including:
  • A lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Breast swelling, warmth, redness or darkening
  • A change in breast size or shape
  • Skin dimpling or puckering
  • An itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other breast parts
  • Sudden nipple discharge
  • New and continuous pain in one spot

Do not panic if you notice any of the pervious signs. Eight in 10 lumps found during BSEs are not cancerous. Immediately inform your doctor to schedule an appointment or tests. 

Performing a Monthly Breast Self-examination
You should perform a visual inspection and physical exam. Do the visual inspection standing in front of a mirror.
  • Keep your hands at your sides
  • Look at both breasts to note changes in size, shape, contour or dimpling
  • Check the color and texture of your skin and nipple
  • Repeat these steps with your arms slightly raised
  • Repeat the steps while pushing down on your hips to tighten your chest muscles
  • Examine your breasts while bending at your waist, keeping your hands on your hips (This will allow you to check for skin dimpling)
  • Perform the physical exam lying down
  • Lie on your back and raise your right arm behind your head
  • Carefully inspect your right breast with the pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand using a dime-sized, overlapping circular motion in an up-and-down pattern
  • Apply different amounts of pressure (light, medium and firm) to each area of the breast
  • Check all areas where breast tissue may be found — from the underarm to the breastbone and from the collarbone to the bra line
  • Do not lift your fingers from the skin during your self-exam
  • After you finish, lower your right arm and re-examine your right underarm 
  • Repeat these steps on the left breast using your right hand

Clinical Breast Exam (CBE) 
A clinical breast exam should be part of your annual well-woman checkup.

What to Expect During Your Clinical Breast Exam
You will lie on the exam table and lift one arm over your head as your doctor feels the breasts for abnormalities such as a lump. The exam is not painful and takes a few minutes.

A mammogram is an breast X-ray examination. It can diagnose a specific breast disease and also be regularly used to search for breast problems that might have no symptoms. Houston Methodist uses all-digital mammography, which provides exceptionally clear and more accurate digital breast images that are of higher resolution than conventional film mammograms. 

Mammography is the best breast cancer screening tool. It can find early-stage cancers too small to be felt.

Houston Methodist recommends women with average breast cancer risk begin annual mammograms at age 40. If you have additional risk factors — like a strong family history of breast cancer — your doctor may recommend mammograms at an earlier age.

What to Expect During Your Mammogram
You will avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, perfumes, powders or lotions in the breast and underarm area on the day of your mammogram. Ingredients in these products can appear on mammograms and make films harder to read. 

When you arrive for your exam, which takes about 15 minutes, you can expect:
  • To undress from the waist up and receive a robe to wear while you wait for the technician
  • To be taken to a room with a large machine. You will slip one arm out of your robe and the technician will position and compress the breast between two clear plates
  • To hold your breath while the technician goes to a computer screen to take images. The technician will take two or three images per breast from different angles
  • Breast compression during a mammogram to be uncomfortable, lasting a few minutes. If you experience any pain, tell let your technician

A certified mammography technologist performs screening X-rays, which board-certified breast radiologists read. You and your doctor will receive test results. 

Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) 
Breast MRI is a highly sensitive, non-invasive test used to look for breast cancer signs. Unlike  mammography X-rays, an MRI uses magnetic fields to view inside the body. 

Breast MRI may be needed for the following conditions:
  • Particularly high breast cancer risks
  • Certain genetic factors
  • Dense breast tissue
  • A strong family history of breast cancer

Breast MRI also may be used for breast cancer treatment planning and MRI biopsy.

During a breast MRI, you will lie face down on a special table with openings for your breasts. Material will be injected in a vein to increase the contrast of the MRI. The process is painless and could last between 30 minutes and one hour. Click here for information about how to prepare for and what to expect during a breast MRI. 

Breast Ultrasound
Breast ultrasounds determine if a breast lump or mass is filled with fluid. If the mass is filled with fluid, it is probably a cyst — usually not a sign of cancer. If a breast ultrasound indicates a solid mass, a biopsy may be scheduled.

What to Expect During Your Breast Ultrasound 
An ultrasound involves applying gel to the breast and using a transducer that emits ultrasound waves and receives their echoes. Most women think the procedure is painless.

Screening Guidelines
Early detection is the best breast cancer defense. Early diagnosis allows for more treatment options and improves success of treatment and survival. Guidelines for screening exams or imaging studies include the following.

Breast cancer screening should begin in your 20s:
  • Breast self-examinations every month
  • Clinical breast examinations every three years
In your 30s, breast cancer screening should include:
  • Baseline screening mammogram (may be recommended between 30-35)
  • Clinical breast self-examination every three years
  • Breast self-examinations every month
At age 40, breast cancer screening should include:
  • Breast self-examinations every month
  • Clinical breast examinations every year
  • Mammograms every one to two years, depending on risk

Click the topics below for breast cancer risk factor information that may lead your doctor to recommend frequent screening or additional tests: 

Check with your primary care doctor or OB-GYN to determine the best examination schedule for you.

Minimally Invasive Diagnostic Biopsy
Houston Methodist specializes in minimally invasive biopsy, during which fine needles extract tissue from lesions. The sample is analyzed for composition. This analysis indicates the tissue source, if it is cancerous and whether treatment is required.

Minimally invasive methods reduce recovery time. Most women find they can resume activities the day after the procedure. In many cases, a biopsy can be performed by inserting a needle through a tiny incision. Imaging sometimes is used to guide the needle to the site of the abnormality during the procedure.

Image-guided biopsy methods offered at Houston Methodist include:
  • MRI-guided biopsy
  • Ultrasound-guided biopsy 
  • Stereotactic biopsy

More About Houston Methodist Breast Cancer Diagnostic Services 
Learn about our diagnostic and risk-assessment services by clicking below:


Houston Methodist provides mammograms and breast care at the following convenient locations: