Breast Cancer Screening: A Go-to Guide
Just a few short decades ago, doctors categorized breast cancer as a single disease. Things have since changed, and we now know there are many different types of breast cancer, each with its own characteristics and level of severity.
Among women globally, it is the most common form of cancer. Still reeling in the aftermath of the global pandemic, going for regular breast cancer screenings has taken a back seat. This is slowly changing, as we realize we must carry on with life as usual. Part of this is to get tests and screenings done in order to detect abnormal cell growth as early as possible.
Here we guide you on what types of breast screenings and tests there are, what to expect, and when you should be getting them done.
Related read: What happens when breast health is disrupted?
What exactly is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a type of cancer that starts in one or both breasts after cells begin to grow abnormally. It occurs almost exclusively in women, but men can get breast cancer too. Breast cancers can start, and then spread, from different areas of the breast, which have a vast system of glands, ducts, and fatty tissue. Cancers can occur in the lobules, ducts, nipples (less common than most cancers), blood and lymph vessels, or even in the fat and connective tissue, known as stroma.
What’s important to remember is that most often lumps found in the breast are benign, and not in fact cancerous (malignant), which means they are not life-threatening. However, some benign breast lumps can increase the risk of cancer, which is why it is crucial to get any lumps checked by a healthcare professional. Even if no lumps are found in the breast after self-examination, regular screening tests, according to age and medical history, are essential for early detection.
Simply put: Early detection saves lives.
How to determine if you are a high-risk patient
Certain individuals have a higher breast cancer risk than others. Below are a few key indicating factors that high-risk patients currently have, or are predisposed to:
- A history of breast abnormalities or breast cancer
- Dense breast tissue
- Have had breast radiation therapy before age 30
- Have not had children before the age of 30 or breastfed.
- Have estrogen exposure. The case with women who began menstruating before age 13 or experienced menopause after age 51
- Have undergone hormone replacement therapy
Related read: Debunking the Most Common Breast Cancer Myths
Screening tests: Know your MRI from your mammogram
Breast screening refers to the varied tests used to locate disease in people who do not know they have any symptoms, or who are not showing any signs of symptoms. The aim of these tests is to detect the disease or abnormal cells as early as possible before they multiply and start causing symptoms. A common example of an early symptom of breast cancer would be a lump felt in the breast.
Cancer found during the routine screening process is far more likely to be smaller, and usually before they have even spread outside the breast area.
The majority of breast cancer screening exams fall into three categories, including:
Screening tests – an example would be an annual mammogram. Those that undergo these tests are most often people who are in good health and do not suspect any abnormalities or changes in their bodies.
Diagnostic tests – a biopsy, for example, given to those who are suspected of having breast cancer, either due to signs or symptoms they may be experiencing or as a result of a screening test outcome. The main purpose of a diagnostic test is to determine if there is breast cancer present and if it has traveled outside of the breast area. They also help gather information to guide decisions about the best course of treatment.
Monitoring tests – once there is a positive diagnosis there are multitude tests that are conducted to monitor how effective treatment is and to determine how well therapies are working. These tests are also used to check for any cases of recurrence.
Types of breast cancer screening tests
Being aware of how your breasts look and feel is an important part of breast health. Having regular screening tests is important, however, mammograms do not find every breast cancer. Mammograms are also not the only way to detect abnormalities.
Here are three of the most common breast cancer screening methods:
This is the type of breast health screening most women are familiar with and is most widely used as a routine test. So, how does it work?
During a mammogram, the patient stands in front of the mammogram machine (low-risk x-ray device) and the practitioner places the breast onto a clear plastic plate, lowering a second plate down and gently compressing the breast tissue to capture an image. It’s advised to go for a mammogram when you are not menstruating, as at this time the breasts can feel more sensitive or tender than usual.
This screening is not usually a routine test but is often a follow-up after having a mammogram where an abnormality was found. Women who have detected lumps may choose to have an ultrasound to determine detailed characteristics of an abnormality. An ultrasound works by using sound waves through the skin which then bounce off the breast tissue and create an image of the lump and surrounding tissue structure.
MRI, short for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, is for women who are at higher risk of breast cancer. This screening, like in the case of ultrasound, usually also follows a mammogram that has identified breast cancer. An MRI shows highly detailed, 3D images of the breast, identifying exactly where cancer lies and where it has spread to.
This is a unique form of test, as it falls into both screening and monitoring categories. Celbrea® is a breast thermal activity indicator that detects a higher-than-normal temperature. This is known as a thermal biomarker, pinpointing abnormal cells. It is a non-invasive, safe, and easy method of monitoring and screening, with the aim of creating access for all women to get checked and detect cancer at an early stage.
Screening saves lives. Early detection of breast cancer will increase your chances of surviving the disease, so tell your mother, sister, daughter, colleague, friend, and neighbor to go get screened. Tell yourself too.