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Early detection of breast cancer: how and why

One in eight women in the United States will have breast cancer in his life. And breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women, after skin cancer. On average, each 12 minutes a woman is diagnosed breast cancer.

While these statistics may be scary, what’s more important is the survival rate of those who catch cancer early. When caught early and the cancer has not spread, the five-year survival rate is 99%.

“In addition to saving lives, having your annual screening mammogram has the power to potentially reduce the severity of treatment that women with breast cancer must undergo,” says Dr. Karla Sepulvedaassociate professor of radiology and medical director of breast imaging to Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. “Studies have shown that women whose breast cancers are discovered through screening mammography are less likely to undergo more intensive treatment such as mastectomy or chemotherapy.”

Early detection should include monthly self-examinations, regular clinical breast exams, and mammograms. “The sooner we can catch cancer, the better our chances of beating it,” says Dr. Alastair ThompsonProfessor and Section Chief of Breast Surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.

Monthly self-exams: These are important because you will ‘know your normal.’ If anything changes or doesn’t seem right, you can let your health care provider know. Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancer cases are initially detected by women who experience a lump.

Many women’s breasts are lumpy because the breast tissue has a bumpy texture. If the lump can be felt all over your breast and feels similar on both sides, it’s probably normal. However, lumps that look different from the rest or changes are a concern.

You should perform self-examinations in the shower and while looking at yourself in the mirror. In the shower or while lying down, check the entire breast with your three middle fingers, pressing down with a feeling of medium pressure for any thickening, lumps or lumps or any other changes. Also inspect your breasts in front of the mirror for any changes in shape, swelling or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples.

Contact your doctor if you notice:

  • a new lump or change that looks different from the rest of the breast
  • a new lump or any change that looks different from your other breast
  • something different from what you felt before
  • redness, warmth, swelling or pain
  • itchy, scaly, sores, or rashes
  • bloody discharge from the nipple

If you find a lump, contact your doctor, but don’t panic: eight out of 10 lumps are not cancerous.


Mammograms can help find tumors before they can be felt, so don’t skip your mammograms! A mammogram is an X-ray that allows the radiologist to look for any suspicious areas.

Women 40 and older should have mammograms every year. If you are under 40 but have risk breast cancer factors (smoking, history of cancer, use of contraceptives, etc.), your doctor can start screenings for you before age 40.

If your mammogram shows anything abnormal, you may have additional tests like an ultrasound or an MRI. If these tests show that the lump is solid, the doctor may recommend a biopsy. This is a procedure in which cells are removed from this suspicious area to look for cancer.

By Tiffany Harston, Communications Associate in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine