Prompt detection of breast cancer is important to catch the condition in its earliest stages, which is when it is most treatable. Doctors have many tools to screen for breast cancer and help identify individual risk factors for it.

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass in the breast. However, some forms of breast cancer may have no obvious symptoms or other signs in the breast tissue.

If a person notices any changes in the breast, it is important to seek medical attention. This is because early detection can significantly improve the outcomes of breast cancer treatment.

This article discusses screening and risk assessment tools that may help identify breast cancer early.

Although breast cancer can affect anyone, the studies this article cites use the term “women” to describe their participants. This article will match that terminology throughout.

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Breast cancer screening refers to checking the breasts for signs of cancer before any symptoms appear. Different organizations may differ slightly in the screening methods they recommend, and suggestions may vary depending on a number of variables, such as the person’s age and other potential risk factors.

For example, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women aged 50–79 years at average risk of breast cancer get a mammogram every 2 years.

It also notes that women younger than 50 years may want to discuss their personal risks, as well as the possible benefits and risks of screening, with a doctor if they wish to undergo screening at a younger age.

Doctors may also have personalized screening recommendations for certain individuals, such as those who may be at higher risk of breast cancer. For example, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women at high risk of breast cancer get regular screenings every year, starting at age 30 years.

Doctors screening for breast cancer have a number of tools to use. If they find an area of concern in an early screening test, they may order other tests to help clarify their findings.

Screening can involve several tests to either physically inspect breast tissue or use imaging tests to see inside the tissue in the area. Some of these tests include the following.


A mammogram is a scan that uses low dose X-rays to take an image of the breast. It is one of the best tests that doctors have available to find early signs of breast cancer.

The person will stand in front of a special X-ray machine that flattens the breast tissue using two plates. This helps the machine get a uniform image of the breast. The process repeats for other dimensions of the breast and again for the other breast.

Mammograms can cause physical discomfort. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that mammograms are uncomfortable for most people. Some people even find them painful. The test only takes a few moments, however, and the discomfort or pain should pass once it is over.


Ultrasound uses sound waves to make an image of the inside of the breast.

The technician will put a gel on the skin of the breast and then move a handheld device over the skin. This device sends out sound waves that bounce off the tissue, which a computer then captures.

Ultrasound scans should not be painful. However, some people may feel some discomfort during the process.


Doctors may recommend MRI in some cases. A breast MRI uses radio frequencies and magnets to make a very detailed picture of the breast tissue.

Before the test, the doctor may inject a contrast substance into the person’s arm that helps the machine make a more detailed image.

The MRI scan itself involves the person lying down on a flat table that will slide them into the MRI machine, which is a long tube.

The test is painless. However, it may be startling for some people who do not like enclosed spaces. Also, the movements of the magnets may make loud noises.


Doctors may recommend a biopsy if a suspicious area shows up during screening.

During a biopsy, the doctor will remove a bit of tissue from the suspicious area to inspect in a laboratory setting.

A biopsy is another part of checking for cancer, and it does not automatically mean that cancer is present. In fact, the ACS notes that most biopsy results do not indicate cancer. In cases where the area does turn out to be cancerous, getting a biopsy early on can help diagnose the cancer as early as possible.

Other tests

Doctors may recommend other test options in some cases. There are many new and experimental test options that they can explore, such as:

  • breast tomosynthesis
  • contrast-enhanced mammography
  • molecular breast imaging
  • electrical impedance imaging
  • positron emission mammography

A doctor will discuss an individual’s risk of breast cancer and the risks of screening procedures with them in each case.

They may also use tools such as the National Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Risk Calculator or the Tyrer-Cuzick score, which asks questions about medical history, family history, and other factors that may influence a person’s risk.

Although the results of these assessments are not definitive, they give doctors a general indication of a person’s breast cancer risk. This can help them make recommendations about when the person should begin breast cancer screening and how often they may need screening.

There are a number of potential risk factors for breast cancer.

Research from 2017 notes that the main risk factors for breast cancer are sex and age. In 2016, about 99% of all breast cancer-associated deaths in the U.S. were in women over the age of 40 years, and about 71% were in women over the age of 60 years.

However, an individual’s personal risk is a combination of many factors. No single risk factor or group of risk factors will mean that a person develops cancer. Additionally, some people may also get breast cancer without having any typical risk factors.

Some risk factors for breast cancer can include:

  • increasing age
  • reproductive history
  • personal history of breast cancer or some breast-related conditions
  • inherited genetic mutations
  • family history of breast or ovarian cancer or disease
  • dense breast tissue
  • previous radiation therapy
  • some drugs, such as diethylstilbestrol, which was a drug that pregnant people used to prevent miscarriage between 1940 and 1971

Lifestyle factors

Some modifiable lifestyle factors may increase the risk of breast cancer in some cases, such as:

  • overweight or obesity after menopause
  • sedentarism
  • reproductive history
  • alcohol use
  • hormone use, such as hormone therapy or some types of birth control pills

Managing these factors, however possible, may help reduce the risk of breast cancer. It is advisable to speak with a doctor about personal risk factors and screening for breast cancer in each case.

Early signs and symptoms of breast cancer can vary widely. Some people may have no signs or symptoms at all, and doctors may discover the cancer during a routine screening.

If early signs and symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • a lump in the breast or surrounding tissue, such as the armpit
  • pain in the breast
  • darkening or swelling of the breast
  • dimpling of breast skin
  • pulling in or retraction of the nipple
  • nipple discharge

These symptoms do not automatically mean that a person has breast cancer, as some other conditions may cause similar symptoms.

Anyone who is experiencing these symptoms should talk with a doctor for a breast cancer screening and full diagnosis.

Learn more about the early signs and symptoms of breast cancer here.

Prompt detection of breast cancer is important to find breast cancer in its earliest and most treatable stage. This may be before the person has any noticeable symptoms, so regular screening may be the most important tool for this early detection.

One 2021 article notes that breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer among women worldwide. Screening can help reduce this risk.

Research from 2016 notes that standard procedures for breast cancer screening can lead to a roughly 26% reduction in deaths from breast cancer.

The CDC also notes that increasing screening practices for eligible people could:

  • increase life expectancy
  • increase 5-year survival rates
  • decrease the number of people with late-stage cancer at diagnosis

Anyone who has concerns about their risk of breast cancer should contact a doctor. Doctors can use risk assessment tools to find a general risk level and discuss other specifics in each case, such as when and how often a person may require screening for breast cancer.

Anyone who is experiencing symptoms should also contact a doctor, who may be able to recommend diagnostic tests for breast cancer.

Prompt detection of breast cancer can help provide the best chance of finding and treating breast cancer in its earliest stages.

Doctors can use risk assessment tools and screening methods to help gauge a person’s potential risk and advise what diagnostic tests will be useful and how often the person should screen for breast cancer.

Screening can help identify breast cancer before symptoms appear. If a person notices any changes to the breasts, has any concerning symptoms, or believes that they may be at high risk, they should contact a doctor.