Breast cancer affects a significant number of women each year. It is the second-most-common cancer, and the second-leading cause of cancer death, among women. Most breast cancers are slow-growing, but there are types that are aggressive, which is why early detection is essential. Regular screenings are the best way to detect breast cancer in its early stages. The most common screenings are mammograms and doctor-performed clinical breast exams.
Official recommendations are that, starting at 20 years old, a woman should have a clinical breast exam every three years. At 40 years of age, a woman should have a yearly clinical breast exam. The second recommendation is for a screening mammogram, but there is some dispute about the age at which women should start getting them, and how frequently. One recommendation calls for yearly exams once a woman turns 40 years old; another specifies biannual exams for women between 50 and 74 years old. A woman should check with her doctor to determine her best course of action.
It may also be helpful for a woman to examine her breasts once a month, usually about a week after her menstrual period, to identify any changes or abnormalities such as a lump, swelling, irritation or pain. Breast self-exams are not officially recommended as a screening tool for breast cancer because their success in detecting early-stage cancers and increasing the survival rate have not been proven. But, by becoming familiar with the way her breasts normally look and feel, a woman may recognize changes indicating an abnormality.