Breast exams are done by clinicians to look for abnormal lumps that could be breast cancer. Mammograms are x-rays of the breast tissue that are also used to detect abnormal breast masses. There is lots of information out there with different recommendations about when and how often you should have breast exams and mammograms. Here’s how we do it at the Women’s Community Clinic.
When: Breast exams are done every 2-3 years between age 21 and 39. For example, you may choose to do it when you have your Pap smears. Starting at 40 we recommend annual breast exams.
How: A breast exam involves both inspection and palpation. The clinician will look for symmetry (although no two breasts are exactly alike) and for any unusual changes in the texture of the skin. She will then do a thorough exam with her hands to feel throughout the breast tissue and up under the arm a little. She can explain to you what normal breast tissue feels like and answer any questions you have.
Self exam? A lot of women think that they should be checking their own breasts for lumps as part of a ‘self breast exam,’ and feel badly if they don’t keep up with it. The truth is, you don’t have to do them and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t. While it is a good idea to be familiar with your breasts and what the tissue feels like normally, studies show that routine self breast exams do not improve breast cancer survival rates. Therefore, we encourage ‘breast self awareness’ but we no longer stress teaching how to do exams on yourself.
What: Mammograms are x-rays of the breast that are used for routine screening for breast cancer or to check out a lump that is found during a breast exam by a clinician (or by a woman on herself). We don’t do the mammogram on site but we will refer you out to a place that does them.
When: For women who do not have any increased risk for breast cancer (from a family history perspective, for example) it is a little unclear when you should start mammograms. Not all experts agree. Some recommendations say start at age 40, some say 50. Whether you begin at 40 or 50 years old, they are then done every two years. At the Women’s Community Clinic your clinician can talk to you and together you can decide when is the best time to start screening mammograms.