Diagnosing Breast
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Annual Breast Exams are Your Best Defense

Scheduling regular appointments with your doctor is usually the first and fastest way of discovering if you have breast cancer. The type of routine testing changes based on age and personal risk factors. For most women, a mammogram is the best detection method to catch it early. If breast cancer runs in your family, talk to your doctor as he or she might recommend additional testing and proactive health care measures. Prepare yourself by understanding the signs, symptoms and types of testing available will make you feel more prepared.

Common and Cautionary Breast Cancer Symptoms

Breast tissue naturally has a bumpy texture. In many cases, lumpiness is caused by benign breast conditions, such as a cyst, fibroadenoma or dense breast tissue. If you start experiencing the symptoms below or prefer to examine any changes more closely, schedule an appointment with your doctor and discuss with him or her any potential causes.

  • Bloody or clear nipple discharge without squeezing
  • Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling, puckering or pulling of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • New, recurring pain in one spot



When to Schedule Breast Exams and Cancer Screenings

Start talking with your doctor in your early 20s to schedule regular screenings for breast and cervical cancer. Based on your age, personal risk factors and family history, your doctor might recommend a different breast care and prevention plan. Regardless of your age, you should be familiar with your breasts and know how to perform self-exams at home. Breast awareness will help you identify any changes and ensure you’re able to report them to your doctor right away.


Ages 20 – 29

  • Clinical breast exam every 1 to 3 years
  • Liquid-based Pap test every 3 years

Ages 30 – 39

  • Clinical breast exam every 1 to 3 years
  • Liquid-based Pap test and HPV test every 5 years

Ages 40-49

  • Mammogram and clinical breast exam every year
  • Liquid-based Pap test and HPV test every 5 years

Ages 50-75

  • Mammogram and clinical breast exam every year
  • Liquid-based Pap test and HPV test every 5 years* (some doctors stop at 65)
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years or virtual colonoscopy every 5 years

Ages 76+

  • Cancer screenings vary based on health history and doctor recommendation

What to Expect During a Breast Exam

Depending on the test, your personal breast care plan and previous exam results, you may take one or more of these exams. Prepare yourself by doing some research and asking your doctor what to expect during and after the exam.


Clinical breast exam

Often done at a regular checkup, your doctor will assess the shape, size and texture of your breasts. While you’re lying down on the table, he or she will carefully raise your arm above your head to individually examine each side. Using their fingers, your doctor will check your breast, underarm and area below your breast bone for any changes or abnormalities. If anything is found, additional testing will be ordered to rule out a cancer or catch it as soon as possible.



Most mammograms take around 30 minutes. During this time, your breast will be compressed for 20 to 30 seconds each as low-dose x-rays create an image of your breast tissues. The compression can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to ensure a clear view of the tissue and reduce amount of radiation exposure. If you get suspicious findings after your first mammogram, don’t fret. Because your doctor doesn’t have previous exam results to compare, most unusual findings are cysts or dense tissue and not cancer. Your doctor might order additional testing to be sure.


Tips to prepare for your exam:

  •   Schedule your mammogram for the week after your menstrual period (if you’re still ovulating) so your breasts are less tender
  •   Wear a two-piece outfit so you only have to remove your top
  •   Don’t apply deodorant, power, lotion or ointment around the chest area



Usually done after a mammogram or clinical exam that reveals a lump, this test will help determine whether it’s a tumorous growth or not. During this exam, a sonographer and/or radiologist will use high-frequency sound waves to assess the size and shape of the lump or lumps found in your breast. Doctors may also use this testing method to monitor benign breast lumps or to guide a biopsy needle for an ultrasound-guided biopsy.


People who should avoid radiation include:

  •   pregnant or breast-feeding women
  •   women under the age of 25
  •   women with breast implants



If a lump or suspicious area is detected in one of your tests, your doctor will schedule a procedure to remove a small sample of the tissue in question. After your test, the laboratory will identify and diagnose any abnormalities found in the cells. If your pathology report shows that breast cancer is present, your doctor will tell you the type of breast cancer, whether it’s hormone receptor positive or negative and any other details that will help you both develop a treatment plan.


Most common types of breast biopsies include:

  •  A fine-needle aspiration biopsy evaluates a lump that can be felt during a clinical breast exam. It’s a simple, quick and less invasive way to distinguish between a fluid-filled cyst and a solid mass.
  •  A core needle biopsy tests breast lump(s) visible on a mammogram or ultrasound or felt during a clinical breast exam. Your doctor will insert a thin, hollow needle to remove tissue samples from the breast mass.
  •  A stereotactic biopsy combines the mammogram with the biopsy to pinpoint the exact location of suspicious area(s) within your breast. Your radiologist will make a small incision, then insert a needle or a vacuum-powered probe to remove several samples of tissue.
  •  A surgical biopsy is usually done in an operating room to remove a larger portion or the entire breast mass for examination. If cancer cells are present at the margins (i.e., rim of tissue around the lump), another surgery will be required to make sure all of the cancer has been removed adequately.

Dealing with a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Hearing the news you or a loved one has breast cancer can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what steps to take next. A good first step is to research the types of treatments available so you’ll be prepared to talk to your doctor and have a better understanding of what questions to ask. When it comes to choosing a doctor, make sure you find someone who specializes in breast cancer and makes you feel as comfortable as possible. Seeking a second opinion can give you the confidence you need to make your decision or offer another plan that better fits your health needs and lifestyle. Staying positive and making smart lifestyle changes can improve your ability to fight cancer. It also helps to have a strong and supportive team around you.


Learn More About Proton Therapy for Breast Cancer Treatment


Relative 5-Year Survival Rates*

100%           100%          93%         72%            22%

Stage 0       Stage 1       Stage 2       Stage 3       Stage 4

*Percentages are based on how many people live for at least 5 years after diagnosis