Prevention, Screening, & Diagnosis
There's no absolute way to prevent breast cancer. But there are things you can do to help reduce your risk of getting breast cancer, particularly in terms of your weight, your physical activity and general lifestyle, and possibly even your diet.
In terms of physical activity, maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle is essential. Don't smoke, limit how much alcohol you drink (or eliminate it entirely), and eat healthy foods while avoiding unhealthy ones. These lifestyle choices can all help reduce your risk of breast cancer. Eating well and being active will help you maintain a healthy weight, too—as being obese or overweight is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society™ has published an eBook, Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention, which you can read to find out much more detailed information about the connections between nutrition, physical activity, and cancer prevention.
You should also strive to avoid exposure to things that we know cause cancer, like radiation and certain chemicals and environmental pollutants.
Again, there's no guaranteed way to prevent breast cancer, so make sure that you are aware of and regularly check for the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
What If You Have an Increased Risk of Breast Cancer?
If you're more likely than usual to get breast cancer—for instance, if you have any of the breast cancer risk factors—there are several decisions you can make with your doctor that will help reduce your risk of getting breast cancer.
For example, you might decide to take certain prescription drugs that have been proven to reduce your risk of breast cancer, though these drugs also have their own side effects and risks. Or, if you are at very high risk of getting breast cancer, you might decide to have preventive surgery to remove your breasts.
With age, a women’s risk of breast cancer increases. Because of this risk, once you reach a certain age your physician may recommend that you be screened for breast cancer on a regular basis. A screen is just a test to check and see if you have any indications of breast cancer, even if you don't currently feel or see any symptoms. Doctors and researchers believe that screening, like mammograms, might help catch breast cancer at its earliest stages—when it's easiest to fight it.
The American Cancer Society provides guidelines for when you should begin breast cancer screenings.10 But screening recommendations change, and they also vary based on your risk factors and your doctor's beliefs and practices. So it's best to check with your doctor about when you should begin screening.
To diagnose breast cancer, most doctors will begin with a thorough physical exam to discover any signs and symptoms you may have. They'll also try to find out as much about your and your family's health history as possible to figure out which risk factors you have.
If your doctor has determined that you might have breast cancer, various tests can be used to diagnose it. Most of the time, you'll receive a procedure called a breast biopsy, in which doctors will remove a small piece of breast tissue from the suspicious area, in order to test the tissue to figure out if it's cancer.
There are several different types of breast biopsy procedures. The difference between them relates to how doctors access and remove tissue from the suspicious area, and how much of the tissue they remove.
In each of the "image guided biopsies," doctors will use an imaging machine to help guide them to the suspicious area as they remove a small piece of breast tissue with a biopsy needle. Doctors use local anesthesia (temporary numbing medicine applied directly to the area being biopsied) to help make the biopsy as painless as possible.
In an ultrasound-guided breast biopsy, doctors use an ultrasound machine to help guide a needle to the suspicious area.
A stereotactic breast biopsy and a tomosynthesis-guided (also called ‘tomo’ or 3-D mammogram) breast biopsy, both use an x-ray machine to help the doctor guide the needle to the suspicious area.
In an MRI-guided breast biopsy, doctors use an MRI machine to guide the needle to the suspicious area.
Other types of biopsies are more like typical surgeries with general anesthesia (medicines used to put you into a deep sleep so you do not feel pain during surgery)14 , where doctors cut directly into the skin to remove part of the suspicious breast tissue. In an open biopsy, doctors will cut out all or part of the suspicious breast tissue directly. This type of biopsy is similar to how we typically think of surgery, because doctors "open" up more of the skin than they would in other types of biopsies.
After your biopsy, doctors will analyze the breast tissue that they have removed in order to determine if it's cancer.
And in most of these cases, if only part of the suspicious area has been removed, doctors will likely place a small metal breast-tissue marker where they removed the tissue. This marker will help them find the exact spot again later, if they need to remove more of the tissue.