How to Identify Breast Cancer

The first step to catching breast cancer early is for every woman to stay informed regarding the signs and symptoms of the disease. The American Cancer Society recommends that women in their 20s and 30s schedule a clinical breast exam every three years. Women, who are over 40 years old, should be examined by their doctor annually.
Breast Self Exam

Breast Examination

Women are also encouraged to perform routine self-breast exams. For this reason, it’s important to know what to watch out for during a self-exam. Women, who choose to perform self-exams, should consult with their healthcare provider to learn the specific technique. They should be able to identify the following changes in their breasts:

  • Redness in the nipple area
  • Scaliness in the nipple or breast area
  • Lumps
  • Skin irritation
  • Discharge

How to Perform a Self-Breast Examination

Breast cancer growths are more likely to be found in some areas of the breast than others. About half of tumors are found in the outer and upper region of the breast. The following Breast Self Exam method is recommended by the American Cancer Society:

  1. Lie on your back with your right arm behind your head.
  2. Using the three middle fingers of your left hand, feel for lumps in your right breast by performing “dime-sized” circular motions
  3. Use light pressure, at first, then medium pressure (for potential deeper cysts), and finally, use firm pressure to feel the areas closes to the ribs.
  4. Move in a vertical pattern throughout the entire breast.
  5. Repeat the same procedure on your left breast by using the fingers of your right hand.
  6. Look for any changes in the shape or color of the breast skin and nipple.
  7. Sit or stand to examine your underarms in front of a mirror. Raise your arm straight up, and feel for potential abnormalities in the underarm area.

Breast Self Exam – Source: American Accreditation Healthcare Commission

Imaging Tests

If any of the above symptoms are present, the next course of action is to visit the doctor. There are several screening and detection methods that are available:

  • Mammogram – This is the benchmark for diagnosing breast cancer. In fact, mammograms reduce breast cancer deaths by 30% reports the National Cancer Institute. During a mammogram, x-ray pictures are taken at various angles of the breast. Mammograms have become digital, which allows for clear images of any cysts or abnormalities that may be present in the breast. Some mammogram machines offer three-dimensional images of the breast. This technology provides an even clearer image of problem areas in the breast.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging – Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is not recommended without a mammogram, because it has been known to miss some cancers; however, when the tests are taken together they can be beneficial. During an MRI, magnets and radio waves create cross-sectional images of the breast.
  • Ultrasound – This screening tool uses sound waves to help identify cancer in the body. These sound waves are converted into images on a computer screen that help radiologists spot cysts and other abnormalities in the breast. When used with mammography, ultrasounds detect up to 93% of breast cancer cases.
  • Computed Tomography – Computed tomography, commonly known as a CT scan, takes an x-ray of the breasts. However, instead of taking a single picture, it produces cross-sectional images. Before the test, a contrast dye is injected intravenously. The dye helps to identify and outline certain structures within the body. During the scan, the patient lies on a table, while a circle-shaped machine takes images of the body.

Biopsy Studies

Along with imaging tests, doctors also perform biopsies to investigate for breast cancer. They are typically done after an imaging test finds a cyst or abnormality in the breast. During a biopsy, a doctor removes a sample from the problem area for further investigation under a microscope. This will ultimately confirm or eliminate the possibility of cancer.  There are several types of biopsies available to help doctors identify cancer:

  • Fine Needle Biopsy – During this procedure, a doctor uses a thin needle attached to a syringe to remove a sample of tissue from the suspicious area. After the needle is injected, fluid is drawn out and sent to a Pathologist for further examination under a microscope.
  • Core Needle Biopsy – During this procedure, a doctor uses a larger needle to remove more tissue than in a fine-needle biopsy. The doctor numbs the skin using local anesthesia, and extracts a small cylinder of tissue. The sample is then sent to the pathologist for review.
  • Open Biopsy – If fine needle or core biopsy isn’t enough to make an accurate diagnosis, a surgical biopsy may be needed. In these cases, a surgeon removes the entire cyst or mass for examination with the microscope. During a surgical biopsy, the mass is removed along with the surrounding tissue.