The ACS recommends the following guidelines for finding breast cancer early in women without symptoms:
Mammogram: Women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should keep on doing so for as long as they are in good health. While mammograms can miss some cancers, they are still a very good way to find breast cancer.
Clinical breast exam (CBE): Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) as part of a regular exam by a health expert, at least every 3 years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health expert every year. It might be a good idea to have the CBE shortly before the mammogram. You can use the exam to learn what your own breasts look and feel like.
Breast self-exam (BSE): BSE is an option for women starting in their 20s. Women should be told about the benefits and limitations of BSE. Women should report any changes in how their breasts look or feel to a health expert right away.
Breast MRI (Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging): For certain women at high risk for breast cancer, screening BMRI is recommended along with a yearly mammogram. It is not generally recommended as a screening tool by itself because it may miss some cancers that mammograms would find. MRI also costs more than mammograms. Most major insurance companies will likely pay for a screening MRI if a woman can be shown to be at high risk, but it’s not yet clear if all companies will do so. More details about BMRI can be found on cancer.org.
Research has shown that BSE plays a small role in finding breast cancer compared with finding a breast lump by chance or simply being aware of what is normal for each woman. If you decide to do BSE, you should have your doctor or nurse check your method to make sure you are doing it right. If you do BSE on a regular basis, you get to know how your breasts normally look and feel. Then you can more easily notice changes. But it’s OK not to do BSE or not to do it on a fixed schedule.
The goal, with or without BSE, is to see a doctor right away if you notice any of these changes: a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or the nipple turning inward, redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk. But remember that most of the time these breast changes are not cancer.
Women at high risk: Women with a higher risk of breast cancer should talk with their doctor about the best screening plan for them. This might mean starting mammograms when they are younger, having extra screening tests (such as an MRI), or having exams more often.