How do we detect breast cancer more quickly?


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Phil Evans, M.D., studies a mammogram to look for signs of breast cancer.
I would like to answer the question, “How do we identify breast cancer more quickly?” with another question, "When can you set aside 45 minutes once a year?"

Forty-five minutes is how long it takes to get a mammogram, the best tool we have in detecting breast cancer. It’s the amount of time we recommend all women over age 40 commit to their breast health.

I know everyone has 45 minutes per year. Please use it to schedule a mammogram. It could save your life.

Why a mammogram?

We’re getting very good at treating breast cancer. Survival rates have steadily increased throughout the years. And we’re even better at curing breast cancer if we catch it early. The best way for us to detect cancer as early as possible is for us to get an image of the inside of a breast through a routine mammogram. A mammogram can detect tiny cancers in the breast that cannot be felt by touch.

Some of my patients put off their mammogram because of the pain they experience during the process. During a mammogram, the breast is compressed between two plates – once vertically and once horizontally. While this does sometimes cause a bit of discomfort, the compression is necessary to get the best picture of the breast. The thinner we can make the breast, the more likely cancerous tissue will be visible to us.

If you’re concerned about the pain of a mammogram, you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever before the procedure. And maybe one glass of wine afterwards.

3-D mammogram

At UT Southwestern, we now employ 3-D mammogram technology, called Digital Tomosynthesis. While standard mammograms are simply an X-ray of the breast. 3-D mammograms are more like a CT scan. With 3-D mammography, we can see 1-millimeter-wide sections of the breast. With these images, we can see cancers at their earliest stage of development and improve the possibility of a successful cure.

Additionally, women have mentioned that 3D mammography is more comfortable than traditional mammograms. The breast does not have to be compressed as much during this procedure. You’re out of excuses. Make an appointment today.

Other ways to catch breast cancer

In addition to regular mammograms, I also recommend that women get a yearly breast exam by a physician. In a breast exam, the physician will feel the breast for signs of lumps or hardness. The physician will then use her expertise to determine if additional screening, or perhaps a biopsy, is required for any abnormalities.

While not a substitute for a breast exam by a physician, women also can perform breast exams on themselves. A self-exam should be performed periodically one week after the end of a menstrual period when the breast tissue is most stable and less affected by hormonal changes.

The best way to do a self-exam is to lie on your back on a bed. Lying down flattens breasts to make them more suitable for examination. Use two fingers to feel around all parts of the breast. Feel for any inconsistencies in the breast tissue – hardnesses or anything that does not feel like the rest of the breast. Also watch for parts of the breast that change or feel different between exams.

If you feel something, make an appointment to see a doctor for further screening. Don’t put off reporting a lump in your breast. The longer you wait to address it, the more difficult the cancer can be to treat.

Remember that breast cancer typically doesn’t produce obvious symptoms that are easy to notice. Your body may not immediately alert you that something is wrong. So be proactive and get checked regularly.