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Screening and diagnosis: Mammogram, clinical breast exam, and other tests

photo of a woman undergoing a mammogram from the perspective of  the elbow of an x-ray technician at the operations panel

Breast cancer screening

Breast cancer screening looks for signs of cancer before a woman has symptoms. Screening can help find breast cancer early, when the chance of successful treatment is best. Two tests are commonly used to screen for breast cancer:

  • Mammogram. A low-dose x-ray exam of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal. Check the womenshealth.gov screening charts (PDF, 132KB) to see when you should get a mammogram.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE). The doctor looks at and feels the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. Ask your doctor if you need a CBE.

Related information

Some women have not gotten regular mammograms in the past because of cost and lack of insurance. But insurance companies are now required to cover mammograms every 1 to 2 years for women over 40 at no cost to the patient because of the Affordable Care Act.

Depending on factors such as family history and your general health, your doctor may recommend a mammogram before age 40 or more often. Learn more about mammograms and what to expect.

Regular screening is the best way to find breast cancer early in most women. If you are at higher risk of breast cancer, your doctor might want to use other tests too, such as a different type of mammogram or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

It is important to let your doctor know if you find any changes in your breast, such as a lump or dimpling or puckering of the skin. Although research results do not support an official recommendation that all women conduct breast self-exams, knowing your body is key to pointing out any concerns to your doctor.

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Diagnosing breast cancer

Screening tests look for signs of cancer. If a screening mammogram or CBE shows a breast change that could be cancer, additional tests are needed to learn more. These tests might include:

  • Diagnostic mammogram. This type of mammogram uses x-rays to take more detailed images of areas that look abnormal on a screening mammogram.
  • Ultrasound exam. Sound waves help your doctor see if a lump is solid (could be cancer) or filled with fluid (a fluid-filled sac that is not cancer).
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer are used to create detailed pictures of areas inside the breast. MRI may be used if enlarged lymph nodes or lumps are found during a clinical breast exam that are not seen on a mammogram or ultrasound.
  • Breast biopsy. Fluid or tissue is removed from the breast and checked for cancer cells. There are many types of biopsy. A biopsy is the only test to find out if cells are cancer.

Not all women who have abnormal screening test results need to have a biopsy. Sometimes, doctors can rule out cancer based on the results of follow-up tests without biopsy.

Finding out about "abnormal" breast changes can be scary. Talk to your doctor about what tests you might need and what the test results mean. If you learn that you have cancer, your doctor will help you move forward and begin treatment.

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More information on Screening and diagnosis: Mammogram, clinical breast exam, and other tests

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Breast Cancer Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on why women should be concerned about breast cancer and gives resources for more information.
  • Mammograms Fact Sheet - This fact sheet discusses the different types of mammograms available, explains how often a woman should get them, and gives facts about their safety and effectiveness.

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Content last updated: June 20, 2013.

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