Breast Exams

Currently, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United Kingdom, with over 41,000 new cases every year. In an effort to combat this growing epidemic, the medical community has developed a number of screening and diagnostic tools designed to catch the disease in its early stages.

These include: a clinical as well as a self-administered breast exam, mammograms, and other screening tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Learn about the benefits of each in helping to fight breast cancer.

Breast Self Exam

Doctors have been recommending that women over the age of 20 perform a breast self exams for a number of years now. However, recent studies have shown the exams may not be very effective when it comes to reducing the actual number of breast cancer-related deaths each year.

However, they are still encouraging breast awareness as a way of detecting any abnormal changes that may require medical attention. In other words, it is still important for women to be familiar with their breasts in terms of their feel, shape and overall appearance.

Those wishing to continue performing breast self-exams should consult their medical professional regarding their technique.

Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is performed so that your health care provider can detect any abnormalities you may have missed in your self-examination. In particular, your doctor will be looking for any lumps, as well as enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit.

For most women, it is recommended that a clinical breast exam be recieved every three years until the age of forty – after which point a yearly exam is recommended. You may also be required to be examined more frequently if you are determined to be at a higher risk of carrying the disease.


A mammogram, or an X-ray of the breast, is currently the most effective tool available for detecting any symptoms of breast cancer – namely tumours – before they can be detected either by yourself or your doctor.

The procedure involves having two images of each breast taken so that the breast can be seen from two different angles. Some women describe the experience as uncomfortable or even painful, but the good news is that it only lasts a few seconds.

Of course, it is important to remember that no diagnostic screening tool will ever be 100% effective. That being said, good quality mammograms can find 85-90% of cancers. However, a false-negative result is more common in women in their forties, as their breasts tend to be more dense, and are therefore harder to analyse for abnormalities.

The opposite result – false-positive – is also possible, leading to unnecessary biopsies, not to mention anxiety. The quality of the mammogram and the skill of the radiologist are also significant variable factors.

In the UK, all women between the ages of 50 and 69 are offered mammograms every three years, as part of a national breast screening programme.

Other Screening Tests

While a clinical and self breast examination, as well as a mammogram are considered the principle screening methods for breast cancer detection, there are several others that may be used in combination to make the diagnosis more accurate. These include:

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

As its name suggests, this procedure involves the use of a magnet that is linked to a computer to take pictures of your breast’s interior. While it is not recommended as a method of routine screening (as it carries a risk of a false-positive result), an MRI can be an effective way of detecting the signs of breast cancer that a mammography would not be able to pick up on.

Women considered at high-risk of developing breast cancer may be required to undergo an MRI more regularly, however MRI scanning is not generally used in breast screening by the National Health Service (NHS).

Breast ultrasound

If your doctor detects an abnormality in your mammogram, he may recommend you have an ultrasound performed. This diagnostic tool uses sound waves to form images of structures within the body. In the context of breast cancer detection, an ultrasound can help determine whether the area in question is a cyst or solid tissue. This method is considered safe because it does not use X-rays.

Computer-aided detection (CAD)

One of the problems with traditional mammography is that the accuracy of the results depend greatly on the skills of the radiologist who is administering the exam. The CAD was developed to address this issue and uses a computer to scan a mammogram once a radiologist has reviewed it. Research suggests that using mammography and CAD together may increase the rate of cancer detection.

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