Breast Cancer | Diagnosis & Tests


How can I find breast cancer early?

The best way to find breast lumps is to do 2 things:

  • Have regular mammograms (usually every 2 years starting at age 50. If you are under 50, talk to your doctor about your risk factors for breast cancer, including your family history, to decide whether regular mammogram screenings are appropriate for you).
  • Talk to your family doctor about whether you should have a breast exam.

Doing all of these things gives you the best chance to find cancer as early as you can. Finding breast cancer early makes treatment much easier and more effective.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is the most effective way to find breast cancer early, up to 2 years before the lump is even large enough to feel. A mammogram is a special kind of X-ray of your breasts. The amount of radiation used in the X-ray is very small and not harmful.

Mammograms detect cancer because cancer is more dense (thicker) than the normal part of the breast. A radiologist will look at the X-rays for signs of cancer or other breast problems.

How is a mammogram performed?

Your breast will rest on a shelf and the X-ray machine will slowly press against your breast until you feel pressure. This pressure is needed to spread your breast out so that a better X-ray can be taken. The X-ray takes 1 or 2 minutes, and the entire process usually takes no more than about 20 minutes.

Do mammograms hurt?

Mammograms can be uncomfortable. But they don't take very long. You may find that planning to have your mammogram shortly after your period makes it less uncomfortable. Your breasts may be less tender at this time.

How often should I get a mammogram?

Women 50 years of age and older should get a mammogram every 2 years. If you have risk factors for breast cancer, such as a family history of breast cancer, your doctor may want you to have mammograms more often or start having them sooner.

When should I talk to my doctor about a change in my breast?

Although there is no evidence that breast self-exams can help prevent breast cancer, they might help you get familiar with how your breasts normally feel so you may more easily notice any changes. Talk to your doctor if you notice any of the changes listed below.

Changes to look for in your breasts

  • Any new lump (which may or may not be painful or tender)
  • Unusual thickening of your breasts
  • Sticky or bloody discharge from your nipples
  • Any changes in the skin of your nipples or breasts, such as puckering or dimpling
  • An unusual increase in the size of one breast
  • One breast unusually lower than the other


Screening for Genetic Risk of Breast Cancer by TC Rosenthal, SM Puck (American Family Physician January 01, 1999,

Written by editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/14
Created: 01/99