A project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health

Skip Navigation

Womens Health logo
Minority Women's Health
divider line

Breast cancer


woman smiling

Cancer is a disease in which cells become abnormal and form more cells in an uncontrolled way. With breast cancer, the cancer begins in the tissues that make up the breasts. The cancer cells may form a mass called a tumor. Getting a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) can help find the cancer early. This gives a woman more treatment options and makes it more likely she will survive the cancer.

Breast cancer is a major cause of cancer death in American Indian and Alaska Native women. Even though native women have lower breast cancer rates than white women, they are more likely than white women to be diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat. Also breast cancer rates vary in different parts of the country. For instance, breast cancer rates are highest in Alaska, where native women have rates similar to those of white women. Many native women do not get breast cancer screening, even when it's available to them. The belief that cancer can't be beat is one reason native women might avoid screening.

We do not know how to prevent breast cancer. But there are things you can do to reduce your risk, such as limiting how much alcohol you drink and being physically active.

There also are things you can do to find breast cancer early. Breast cancer screening looks for signs of cancer before a woman has symptoms. Screening can help find breast cancer early when it's most treatable. Two tests are commonly used to screen for breast cancer:

  • Mammograms. A safe, low-dose x-ray exam of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal. Starting at age 40, women should have screening mammograms every 1-2 years. Depending on factors such as family history and your general health, your doctor may recommend a mammogram before age 40.
  • 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.

Regular screening is the best way to find breast cancer early in most women. If you are at higher risk you may need mammograms at an earlier age or more often. Or, your doctor might want to use other tests too. Let your doctor know if you find a change in your breast, such as a lump or nipple discharge that isn't breast milk.

Free or low-cost mammograms

Some women do not get regular mammograms because of cost and lack of insurance. Yet there are free and low-cost programs to help women get breast cancer screening. You can learn more by contacting the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

Return to top

Content last updated May 18, 2010.

Resources last updated May 18, 2010.

Return to top