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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. These cells may form lumps called tumours. 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.

These tests 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 gently squeezes your breasts to make them flatter and easier to X-ray.

3-D mammograms (tomosynthesis).

These tests 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 for the radiologist to look at.

Clinical breast examination.

In this examination, your doctor carefully feels your breasts and under your arms to check for lumps or other changes.

Who should be screened for breast cancer?

Experts agree that mammograms are the best screening test for people at average risk of breast cancer. Guidelines for when to start having mammograms and how often to have them vary from province to province.

You should discuss the benefits and harms of mammograms with your doctor. He or she can help you decide when to start and how often to have a mammogram. Your doctor can help you find a breast cancer screening program in your area.

For people who are at average risk for breast cancer, the Toward Optimized Practice Alberta breast screening guideline recommends the following:

  • Ages 40 to 49: Regular mammograms are not recommended.
  • Ages 50 to 74: Regular mammograms (every 2 to 3 years) are recommended. You do not need a referral to get a mammogram.
  • Age 75 and older: You may want to talk to your doctor about whether you need breast cancer screening.
  • If you are unsure about whether or not to start breast cancer screening, we recommend reviewing the benefits and risks of a mammogram at screeningforlife.ca.

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 use the Risk Assessment tools at screeningforlife.ca to calculate your risk.

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 no more than 1 drink a day. 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.
  • If you don’t exercise, start. Getting regular exercise every day (ideally 30 minutes or more), even if it’s a brisk walk or some yard work, can help reduce your chances of getting 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?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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