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5 Types of Breast Exams

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness for one of the most common types of cancers in American women. This month of awareness and recognition lets those suffering from breast cancer know they are not alone, spreading hope and support for women around the country.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month also serves as a reminder that women must be diligent about their breast health and perform regular breast exams. Breast cancer is not preventable, but the following types of breast exams and screening methods can help detect breast cancer at its earliest and most treatable stages.

1. Self-Checks

According to Johns Hopkins, 40% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump. Performing regular self-checks will help you become familiar with your breasts and be able to detect if something is out of the ordinary. Women of all ages should perform a breast exam once a month.

Follow the below steps when performing self-check breast exams. If you notice any changes to your breasts during a self-check, alert your doctor.

  1. Stand in front of the mirror with your hands at your sides, and observe your breasts for any changes such as dimpling or puckering. Do this first with your hands by your sides, then with your arms raised your arms overhead, and finally with your hands on your hips, flexing your chest muscles.
  1. Next, with your arm raised, use the pads of your middle three fingers to press over the entire breast and armpit area using light, medium, and firm pressure. 
  1. Perform the same steps from (B) while laying down. You should also squeeze the nipples to check for lumps or discharge.

Changes to look for during your self-breast exam:

  • Change in size or shape
  • Discharge
  • Dimpling or puckering
  • Lumps
  • Tenderness
  • Thick, hardened knots
  • Changes to the nipples

While self-checks are important, they should not replace regular mammograms or clinical breast exams.

2. Clinical

Clinical breast exams are similar to a self-check but performed by a healthcare professional. Professionally trained to detect abnormalities and signs of breast cancer, doctors and care providers may be able to detect changes to your breasts that go unnoticed in a self-check. 

Your doctor or gynecologist will typically perform a clinical breast exam during your annual check-up. The doctor will examine your breasts, armpits, and collarbone area to look for signs of breast cancer. 

3. Mammograms

Mammograms are the most effective breast exams when it comes to detecting lumps or other abnormalities. A mammogram is a low dose x-ray used to take a closer look at breast tissue and detect changes to the breast that can’t be felt during a clinical exam.

During a mammogram, you stand in front of a specialized x-ray machine, placing the breast between two plastic plates, which flatten the breast. While mammograms can be uncomfortable, flattening the breast is necessary to produce a clear picture of the tissue inside.

4. Screening Mammograms

Even if you show no signs of breast cancer, healthcare professionals recommend receiving screening mammograms to ensure that there are no lumps or abnormalities to be detected. Screening mammograms typically involve taking two or more x-ray images of each breast. 

5. Diagnostic Mammograms

Doctors order diagnostic mammograms after abnormalities or signs of breast cancer have been detected. Diagnostic mammograms take longer than screening mammograms because they will capture additional x-rays than taken during a screening. A diagnostic mammogram will help further determine if the symptoms are indicative of breast cancer.

Women over the age of 50 should receive a screening mammogram at least once every 2 years if not yearly. Women under 50 should speak to their doctor to determine how often to get a mammogram, as mammograms are less reliable in detecting tumors in women under 50.

The reason that mammograms are more reliable in detecting tumors in older women may be that younger women have dense breast tissue. Dense breast tissue more closely resembles a tumor, both appearing white in the x-ray image. It’s still important, however, for younger women to receive mammograms and regular breast exams.

Breast Cancer & Genetics

Regular breast exams and mammograms are especially important for women who are genetically prone to breast cancer. About 5-10% of breast cancer cases are hereditary, most commonly resulting from a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, which helps repair damaged DNA. When mutated, they cannot perform their job, leading to abnormal cell growth and potentially cancer.

The BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation leads to a higher risk of developing breast cancer and developing it at a younger age. Women with the mutation must be particularly diligent about receiving regular mammograms and getting them early.

Additional Breast Screenings

In addition to the traditional mammogram, doctors may recommend the following breast exams 

to further assess abnormalities or signs of breast cancer:

  • 3D Mammogram
  • Digital Mammogram
  • Breast Ultrasound
  • Breast MRI

Contact Green Valley OB/GYN

Green Valley OB/GYN has been providing the highest quality of obstetric and gynecological care for over 70 years. We offer a comprehensive list of services, including clinical breast exams and screening mammography. To set up an appointment to talk about your health, call us at (336) 378-1110 to schedule an appointment.