Written by Adella Brown
Many women grew up hearing that monthly self-breast exams can protect them from breast cancer. In recent years, however, as screening technology advances and mammography screening becomes more widespread, some began to doubt the usefulness of self-breast exams. From clinical experiences, we see that breast awareness and mammography are both essential to detecting breast cancer early.
Breast awareness means knowing what our breasts normally look or feel. Regular self-breast exams increase our breast awareness and help us notice any unusual changes to the breast. While doctors may perform a clinical breast exam during annual checkups, it is recommended for women to begin performing self-breast exams regularly in their early 20s:
- Feel for lingering lumps or pain in the breasts or underarm.
- Observe for changes in the size and shape of the breasts, in the skin color or texture on the breasts, and in the direction the nipples are pointing or unusual discharge from the nipples.
- Contact your doctor right away for a checkup if there are abnormal changes in the breasts or underarms.
Breast awareness is especially important for younger women who do not have significant risk factors for breast cancer. Younger women without significant breast cancer risk factors are generally not the target group recommended for mammography screening. Significant risk factors include having a family member already diagnosed for breast cancer, or having a positive test result for breast cancer-related genetic mutations.
Every woman should talk to her doctor about her risks for developing breast cancer. Based on these discussions, she and her doctor can decide at what age screening should begin, and how often screening should take place. Mammography is a screening test that takes x-ray images of the breasts. It is the most widely used screening technology and current standard of care. There are two kinds:
- Screening mammography detects abnormal breast tissues that are too small to see or feel.
- Diagnostic mammography focuses on certain areas of the breasts. This may be offered to women if something unusual is found in the breasts.
Here is what to expect during a screening mammography:
- You will be asked to undress from the waist up, and wear an exam gown. If you are pregnant, you will get a lead apron to protect your belly.
- A technician will help position your breasts on a sensor that receives the x-ray.
- You will be asked to hold your breath for a few seconds while the technician captures images of your breasts.
The results are usually available in two weeks. Sometimes a mammogram may show abnormal tissues that are not cancerous. Based on the results, your doctor may recommend follow up tests and/or management plans.
Together, breast awareness and regular mammography screenings offer women the best chance to detect breast cancer early. If you are 40 or older or are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, be sure to talk to your doctor about breast cancer screening. Also, continue to pay attention to your breasts and inform your doctor promptly when you notice anything unusual. Learn more steps on how you can lower your risk here.
The Charles B. Wang Community Health Center offers comprehensive, high quality primary care services at convenient locations in Manhattan and Queens. The Health Center is open seven days a week and serves all patients regardless of their ability to pay. To learn more about OB/GYN services offered at the Health Center, please call (212) 966-0228 (Manhattan), (718) 886-1287 (37th Avenue, Queens), and (929) 362-3006 (45th Avenue, Queens), or visit our OB/GYN webpage.
Adella Brown is a Health Educator in the OB/GYN Department at Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. One of her current roles is providing one-on-one reproductive health education. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience. She is also a Certified Lactation Counselor and passionately promotes breastfeeding in the Chinese American community.