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Learning About Breast Cancer Screening

What is breast cancer screening?

Breast cancer occurs when cells that are not normal grow in one or both of your breasts. Screening tests can help find breast cancer early. Cancer is easier to treat when it's found early.

Having concerns about breast cancer is common. That's why it's important to talk with your doctor about when to start and how often to get screened for breast cancer.

How is breast cancer screening done?

These screening tests can be used to check for breast cancer.

  • Mammograms check for signs of cancer using X-rays. They can show tumours that are too small for you or your doctor to feel. During a mammogram, a machine squeezes your breasts to make them flatter and easier to X-ray. At least two pictures are taken of each breast. One is taken from the top and one from the side.
  • 3-D mammograms are also called digital breast tomosynthesis. Your breast is positioned on a flat plate. A top plate is pressed against your breast to keep it in position. The X-ray arm then moves in an arc above the breast and takes many pictures. A computer uses these X-rays to create a three-dimensional image.

After the screening, your doctor will tell you the results. You will also be told if you need any follow-up tests.

When should you get screened?

Talk with your doctor about when you should start being tested for breast cancer. How often you get tested and the kind of tests you get will depend on your age and your risk.

Guidelines for when to start having breast cancer screening and how often it should be done vary from province to province. Your doctor can help you find a breast cancer screening program in your area.

The guidelines that follow are from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care. They are for women who have an average risk for breast cancer. If you have a higher risk for breast cancer, such as having a family history of breast cancer in multiple relatives or at a young age, your doctor may recommend different screening for you.

  • Ages 40 to 49: Regular mammograms are not recommended.
  • Ages 50 to 74: Regular mammograms (every 2 to 3 years) are recommended.
  • Age 75 and older: You may want to talk to your doctor about whether you need breast cancer screening.

What is your risk for breast cancer?

If you don't already know your risk of breast cancer, you can ask your doctor about it. You can also look it up at

If your doctor says that you have a high or very high risk, ask about ways to reduce your risk. These could include getting extra screening, taking medicine, or having surgery. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about genetic testing.

What steps can you take to stay healthy?

Some things that increase your risk of breast cancer, such as your age and being female, cannot be controlled. But you can do some things to stay as healthy as you can.

  • Learn what your breasts normally look and feel like. If you notice any changes, tell your doctor.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit it to less than 1 drink a day if you are a woman and less than 2 drinks a day if you are a man. Any amount of alcohol may increase your risk for some types of cancer.
  • If you smoke, quit. When you quit smoking, you lower your chances of getting many types of cancer.

You can also do your best to eat well, be active, and stay at a healthy weight. Eating healthy foods and being active every day, as well as staying at a healthy weight, may help prevent cancer.

Where can you learn more?

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