5 Facts About Breast Cancer Screening

Mammograms can catch breast cancer early

A group of women wearing shirts with breast cancer awareness ribbons, underscoring importance of early detection and mammograms

Mammograms can catch breast cancer early

Ask any of your friends or relatives if they know someone who has had breast cancer, and the answer will most likely be “yes.”

Women in the United States have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. In 2024, more than 310,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women. 

Fortunately, when detected early, breast cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer.

Here are five facts about breast cancer screening that underscore the importance of screening tests.

1. Mammograms can lead to early detection and more successful treatment

Regular mammograms are meant to look for changes in the breasts of women who do not have any clinical signs of breast cancer. A mammogram can spot changes that may indicate cancer, often years before any physical symptoms appear.

“Annual mammograms can detect breast cancer at very early stages, before a patient or clinician can even feel a lump. The earlier the detection, the higher the chance of cure,” says Yoona Ho, MD, a diagnostic radiologist at Scripps Clinic.

In addition to regular exams, practicing breast health awareness is crucial. Familiarize yourself with your breasts so you can quickly notice any changes, like a lump, and report anything unusual to your doctor immediately.

2. Screening is important even if you don’t have family history risk factor

Only about 15 percent of women with breast cancer have a family member with the disease.

There are other risk factors to consider when it comes to breast cancer. Some are modifiable, such as diet and exercise, and others are not, such as age and sex. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 55 and older.

Screenings help find breast cancer at an early stage. When found early, the chances for successful treatment are greatest.

3. Screening recommendations depend on several factors

The screening recommendations below apply to most women:

Age 20 to 39

  • Clinical breast exam every one to three years with a health care provider who checks for lumps or other changes

Age 40 and older

  • Clinical breast exam every year
  • Mammogram every year

Women at increased risk

If you have risk factors for breast cancer, your doctor may recommend that you begin screening sooner, have additional tests or get screened more often.

You’re at increased risk for breast cancer if you fall under one or more of these groups.

  • History of radiation treatment to the chest
  • Genetic mutation, including an abnormality in the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes, CDH1, Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba Syndrome
  • History of lobular carcinoma in situ
  • Five-year risk of breast cancer 1.7 percent or greater at age 35 or older, as defined by a Gail Model calculation.
  • A life-time risk of breast cancer 20 percent or greater, as defined by models based on family history

Women with a strong family history of breast cancer should consider speaking with a genetic counselor.

If you have breast implants or have been told you have dense breast tissue (which means you have less fat tissue in your breasts), you may need additional screening. Your doctor will let you know what you need.

4. Mammograms are safe

Mammograms use very low doses of radiation to screen breast tissue. The benefits of screening outweigh any possible risks from radiation exposure.

“Most breast imaging departments, including those at Scripps, use digital mammography, which has replaced conventional film-screen mammography. Digital mammography offers better quality with less radiation,” Dr. Ho says.

“Many facilities, including some at Scripps, also offer tomosynthesis (or 3D mammography) which often decreases the need for additional imaging and may be beneficial in patients with dense breast tissue,” Dr. Ho adds.

During a mammogram, the breast is compressed between two plates before being X-rayed. The breast tissue must be as flat as possible in order to get a precise image.

Some women may find the compression uncomfortable. Let your providers know if that is the case. They may be able to change it or decrease the pressure a bit. 

5. Mammograms are affordable — or even free

Mammograms are usually covered by health plans as recommended preventive care


If you are covered under the Affordable Care Act and are age 40 or older, your annual mammogram is fully covered by your plan, even if you haven’t met your deductible.

If you don’t have insurance, several national breast cancer organizations sponsor low-cost or free mammogram programs for eligible women. Our staff at Scripps Health can provide you with contact information for programs in your area. In addition, Scripps and many other breast care centers will set up a payment plan if you need it.

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