Catching cancers early helps save lives. Screening mammograms can help catch breast cancer in its early stages when it is easier to treat. They look for signs of breast cancer before any symptoms can develop.
Choosing when to get a mammogram, which is a breast X-ray, is a personal decision. But it is one best done with help of a physician. Women should talk to their primary care doctors, as they are best equipped to assess risk and optimize a surveillance strategy.
The American Cancer Society recommends people who’ve delayed their annual mammogram during the COVID-19 pandemic to talk to their doctor about the risks and benefits of getting screened now or waiting for a later date, taking into consideration personal and family history and the timing of their last mammogram. Scripps Health is currently scheduling routine mammograms and has implemented COVID-19 safety measures at its facilities.
Breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear. Practicing awareness can make a big difference.
“If you’re doing a breast self-exam and find something that’s abnormal, be sure to bring it to the attention of your physician and make sure it’s looked at,” says Sonia Ali, MD, a medical oncologist at Scripps Clinic. “Nothing trumps knowing your body and knowing what’s new and what’s changed.”
The most common warning sign of breast cancer is a lump or mass that develops in the breast tissue or breast area. In some cases, the mass may be too small to feel and is only discovered with a mammogram or ultrasound exam.
Other breast cancer symptoms include:
- Skin redness
- Dimpling or puckering on the breast
- Scaliness on nipple
- Nipple changes
- Ulcer on the breast or nipple
- Thickening of the skin, resulting in an orange-peel texture
- Swelling of the breast
For people with higher than average risk of breast cancer due to a family history of cancer or a suspected genetic mutation, they can take steps to lower their chances of developing breast cancer or help find it early. Genetic testing for breast cancer can identify mutations that could raise the risk of breast cancer.
“There are genetic cancer syndromes,” says Dr. Ali. “If you have a close relative with ovarian cancer, male breast cancer, or multiple relatives with breast cancer, you could be at increased risk of having an underlying mutation.”
If an underlying mutation is identified during gene testing, additional screening guidelines will follow.
It’s important to remember that each breast cancer is unique, with differing profiles and mutations and diverging clinical paths.
“It’s natural for friends and family members to give well-intentioned advice based on their experience with cancer and treatment,” notes Dr. Ali. “However, patients must keep in mind that not every cancer – and more specifically, not every breast cancer – is the same.”
Breast oncologists have diagnostic tests that can analyze individual tumors on a genetic level. The results can help guide treatment decisions.
While cancer treatments are a concern for many patients, the stories they hear do not always match the reality.
“A lot of women will say something like: ‘Dad had cancer. I know what chemotherapy is like,’” says Dr. Ali. “But there are many different types of chemotherapy regimens, and even people who get the same drugs often don’t have the same reactions. Don’t take someone else’s experience and assume it will be your own.”