Breast cancer screening - Advice about Breast Cancer

Screening and Detection

Breast cancer screening is a controversial subject with experts divided over when it should start, how long it should continue and which methods are most effective. And whilst the medical researchers are wrangling over these difficult issues, it’s the politicians who ultimately decide what funding to devote to mass screening programmes.

Mammography is the biggest screening programme used in the UK, USA and many other developed countries and has proved effective in terms of early detection of breast cancer. Some studies indicate that mammography reduces breast cancer death rates but the evidence to date is not conclusive. Some countries offer the service free to all women over a certain age, some governments offer subsidies to encourage women to have regular mammograms whilst other countries have a limited or non-existent screening programme.

Self-examination is a form of mass screening programme which doesn’t involve any direct cost to the public purse; but even here the experts can’t agree on its effectiveness. Some health professionals fear women rely too heavily on self-examination and use it as an excuse to avoid a mammogram. Others say it leads to unnecessary worry and medical tests because breasts tend to be lumpy things by nature and women often mistake perfectly normal lumps and bumps for something more sinister. Yet there have been individual cases where self-examination has picked up a cancerous lump which went undetected in a mammogram.

The general consensus is that self-examination is advisable – but don’t beat yourself up about it if you don’t want to or can’t be bothered to do it. Regular mammograms and physical checks by a trained health professional are generally recommended for post-menopausal women.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a high effective way of detecting breast cancer but its cost renders it impractical for mass screening purposes. It basically involves placing the patient inside a giant magnet which gives unparalleled pictures of the inside of the body. This form of screening is often used for younger women who are known to be carrying certain genes associated with breast cancer.

Ultrasound scanning (using sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body) is not used for mass screening but can be useful for providing further information about an abnormality detected by a mammogram or physical examination.


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