Early Detection

About 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer. After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer in women. The good news is that many women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early.   According to the National Cancer Institute, when breast cancer is found early and is still localized (restricted to the site of origin, without evidence of spread), the relative survival rate, when measured at five years, is 98 percent. When breast cancer is found at a late stage (cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body), the survival rate at five years is 26 percent.

According to the National Cancer Institute, when breast cancer is found early and is still localized (restricted to the site of origin, without evidence of spread), the relative survival rate, when measured at five years, is 98 percent. When breast cancer is found at a late stage (cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body), the survival rate at five years is 26 percent.  Early detection is key!

CAN BREAST CANCER BE FOUND EARLY?

Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease, such as cancer, in people who do not have any symptoms. The goal of screening exams, such as mammograms, is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms. Breast cancers that are found because they can be felt tend to be larger and are more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In contrast, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be small and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are important factors in predicting the prognosis (survival outlook) for a woman with this disease.

Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer save many thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their health care providers took advantage of these tests. Following the American Cancer Society's guidelines for the early detection of breast cancer improves the chances that breast cancer can be diagnosed at an early stage and treated successfully. The American Cancer Society believes the use of mammograms, MRI (in women at high risk), clinical breast exams, and finding and reporting breast changes early, according to the recommendations outlined above, offers women the best chance to reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer. This combined approach is clearly better than any single exam or test alone. Without question, breast physical exam without a mammogram would miss the opportunity to detect many breast cancers that are too small for a woman or her doctor to feel but can be seen on mammograms. Although mammograms are a sensitive screening method, a small percentage of breast cancers do not show up on mammograms but can be felt by a woman or her doctor. For women at high risk of breast cancer, such as those with BRCA gene mutations or a strong family history, both MRI and mammogram exams of the breast are recommended.

Although there are some women who are at higher risk, the fact is that ALL women are at risk for breast cancer. That is why it is so important to follow this three-step plan for early detection - breast self exam, clinical breast exam and mammography.  Although breast cancer cannot be prevented at the present time, early detection of problems provides the greatest possibility of successful treatment.

Last Medical Review: August 2010