Breast cancer screening is a way in which doctors check the breasts for early signs of cancer in people who have no symptoms of breast cancer. The main test used to screen for breast cancer is a special kind of X-ray called a “mammogram.”

The goal of breast cancer screening is to find cancer early, before it has a chance to grow, spread, or cause problems. Studies show that being screened for breast cancer lowers your chance of dying from the disease.

Different experts have different recommendations for breast cancer screening. Also, the recommendations for screening might be different for people at higher risk of getting breast cancer.

Starting at the age of 40, it’s important to talk to your doctor or nurse about the benefits and drawbacks of screening and decide, with your doctor’s or nurse’s help, whether to get screening and when.

Some people who are at high risk of breast cancer might need to begin screening before age 40. Talk to your doctor or nurse to see if you should start screening earlier. For example, you might do this if you are under 40 but have a relative who got breast cancer at a young age, or if you have certain genes that increase your risk of breast cancer (such as “BRCA” genes).

Regular screening with mammograms generally continues through age 74 years. Some people choose to continue getting regular mammograms after this if they are healthy and expected to live for at least 10 more years.

Yes, but your doctor might recommend not scheduling them close together.

Some people have had temporary swelling of lymph nodes in the armpit area after getting certain COVID-19 vaccines. In some cases, this can make it harder for doctors to interpret your mammogram. For this reason, experts recommend trying to schedule your mammogram either before you get the COVID-19 vaccine, or at least 4 to 6 weeks after your last dose.

If you’re not sure when to schedule your mammogram, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can help you make this decision based on your situation. While breast cancer screening is important, it is also very important to get the COVID-19 vaccine when you are able.

The main benefit of screening is that it helps doctors find cancer early, when it might be easier to treat. This lowers the chances of dying from breast cancer.

The drawbacks include:

  • False positives – Mammograms sometimes give “false-positive” results. This means the results suggest that you might have cancer when you actually do not. This can lead to unneeded worry and to more tests – including a biopsy in some cases, which can be painful. False-positive results are more likely to happen in people younger than 50 than in older people.
  • Finding cancer that would not have needed treatment – Sometimes, mammograms find cancer that would never have affected your health. This can be a problem because treating these cancers does not have any benefit, and can cause harm. For example, you could get surgery, radiation treatment, or chemotherapy to treat a cancer that never would have caused problems if it hadn’t been found. There is no way to know which cancers found by screening will lead to problems, and which won’t.
  • Radiation exposure – Like all X-rays, mammograms expose you to some radiation. But studies show that the number of lives saved by finding cancer early greatly outweighs the very small risks that come from this radiation exposure.

Before the mammogram, you will be asked to undress from the waist up and put on a hospital gown or cape. Then, your breasts will be X-rayed 1 at a time. Each breast is typically X-rayed twice, once from the top down and once from side-to-side. This is so the radiologist can get a good look at all the tissue. To make the breast tissue easier to see, a nurse or technician will flatten each breast between 2 panels.

There are different types of machines that are used for mammograms. They include film mammography, digital mammography, and something called “digital breast tomosynthesis” (or “DBT”). DBT creates images of the breast from different perspectives. It is sometimes called “3-D mammography.”

Getting a mammogram can be uncomfortable, but it lasts only a few seconds. If your breasts are sensitive before or during your period, you might want to avoid scheduling your mammogram during that time, if possible. Also, do not use underarm deodorant, powder, or lotion on the day of your appointment.

If a radiologist (the doctor who will look at your X-ray) is able to look at your mammogram right away, you might get the results the same day. If not, you should get a phone call or letter with your results within 30 days. Or, if you use an online “patient portal,” you will likely get an alert there when your results are ready. If you do not hear back about your results, call the office or hospital where you had our mammogram, or your doctor’s office. Do not assume that your mammogram was normal if you hear nothing.

If your mammogram is abnormal, try not to panic. In 9 out of 10 cases, an abnormal mammogram turns out not to be breast cancer. You will need more tests to find out what’s going on.
If the doctor thinks your abnormal result is probably not due to cancer, they might suggest that you have another mammogram in 6 months. In other cases, the doctor will give you more tests. This could be because they need to get a better view of part of your breast, or because they think the abnormal result might be due to cancer. Other tests could include a more detailed mammogram, which involves taking more X-rays to get a better view, or an ultrasound of the breast to check something seen on the mammogram. An ultrasound or MRI might also be suggested if your mammogram shows very dense breasts that can make a mammogram harder to read.

If these tests show any suspicious findings, your doctor or nurse will probably order a biopsy. During a biopsy, a doctor takes a sample of breast tissue and sends it to the lab to be checked for cancer. Biopsies are usually done by taking some tissue from the breast with a needle during a mammogram or ultrasound. But, in some cases, biopsies involve a small surgery.

Many experts no longer believe that breast exams by a doctor or nurse are helpful for people who have no breast symptoms. Most lumps that are found when a doctor examines the breast are not actually cancer. Also, studies have not found that doing both a breast exam and mammogram is better than doing a mammogram alone.

Some people want to do exams on their own breasts. No study has shown that breast self-exams lower the risk of dying from breast cancer, and most experts do not encourage self-exams. Some experts encourage something called “breast self-awareness.” This involves learning about your personal risk of breast cancer, what your breasts look and feel like normally, and what to do if you do notice a change in your breast. If you notice any changes in your breasts, talk to your doctor or nurse.

Screening breast MRIs are not for everyone. Compared with mammograms, breast MRIs give more “false positives” and sometimes lead to unneeded biopsies. Still, breast MRIs are sometimes used in people who have a high risk of breast cancer. MRIs don’t replace mammograms. They are used along with mammograms for people who need them.

It is not clear what the best schedule for screening is. Many experts suggest mammograms every 2 years for most people, while others suggest mammograms every year. Some experts base their recommendation on your age. The schedule screening might also be different if you have a high risk of breast cancer. Talk with your doctor about how often you should have a mammogram based on your risk as well as your preferences.