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The goal of breast cancer screening is to find a breast cancer even before it causes symptoms or becomes palpable. It includes a battery of tests which can vary depending on the age and family history of an individual. The screening tests detect cancer at an early stage, when it is much easier to treat.
Mammography is the most common screening test for breast cancer. Mammography utilizes X-Rays to image the breasts. It can find cancer even when it has not formed a lump and is inside the breast ducts, where in it is known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS appears as a cluster of tiny white dots (micro calcification) on mammogram. The breast tissue and cancer both appear white on mammograms and hence it may be difficult for a breast tumor to show on mammogram. Dense breasts are more likely to be present in younger women. The radiologist may then ask for either an Ultrasound or Breast MRI to supplement the mammogram. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used along with mammograms to screen women who have a higher risk of breast cancer.
Women with gene changes, such as changes in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes or a positive family history of breast cancer in first degree relative, such as a mother, daughter or sister or those suffering from certain genetic syndromes, such as Li-Fraumeni or Cowden syndrome have a higher than normal risk of developing breast cancer. Women with dense breasts can also undergo MRI screening.
In women with an average risk of developing breast cancer, screening mammography should begin at 40 years of age and can be done once every year. However , those women at higher risk of breast cancer should start screening earlier. They should discuss the right age and modality for screening with their doctor.
This information is for general guidance and reflects the opinions and experience of the author. It is not intended to replace specialist consultation or provide treatment advice for specific cases.