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In most cases, breast cancer can be treated successfully if caught early. For these women, breast-conserving surgery is usually an option as opposed to a mastectomy. And, chemotherapy may not be necessary. But what are the best approaches to early detection?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recommends two methods: a high-quality screening mammogram — a breast X-ray — and breast exams performed by a health professional (not self-exams). To be effective, these need to be performed regularly.

Do I need a screening mammogram?

Here are some facts to consider regarding mammograms and early detection of breast cancer:

  • Eighty percent of women who develop breast cancer have no significant risk factors (i.e., they are not considered “high risk”).
  • There are several factors that put you at high risk for developing breast cancer, including the following:
    • Family history of breast cancer
    • Mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes

Experts at Rush recommend the following:

  • Screening mammograms every year, beginning at age 40 for women who are not high-risk
  • Screening mammograms beginning at an earlier age for women considered high-risk (the exact age and frequency will be determined based on your unique medical history)

Types of mammograms

Mammograms are performed for different purposes:

  • Screening mammograms
    • Performed when there are no signs or symptoms of breast cancer.
  • Diagnostic mammograms
    • Performed when there are worrisome breast cancer symptoms.
      • A breast lump or other lumps (such as under the armpit)
      • Specific kinds of nipple discharge (e.g., bloody discharge that happens on its own or without the nipple being squeezed)
      • Skin changes (e.g., skin puckering or dimpling)
    • You have breast implants, which can hide some breast tissue and require additional images.
    • You have had breast cancer in the past.
    • You need follow-up mammograms. This may be necessary after a biopsy or due to questionable findings on a previous mammogram. Another possible reason for follow-up: There may have been abnormalities on other imaging exams, such as CT and MRI.

Breast ultrasound, breast MRI and various types of needle biopsies are also used when necessary.

Two types of technology can be used for mammograms: film and digital. At Rush, radiologists use digital mammograms, which the NCI says offers the following advantages:

  • Images can be shared electronically, making consultations between radiologists and other breast cancer specialists easier.
  • Subtle differences in healthy and abnormal tissues may be easier to identify.
  • Fewer repeat images may be necessary, which can reduce radiation exposure.

Why choose Rush for a mammogram

  • The Regenstein Breast Imaging Center at Rush is designated a breast imaging center of excellence by the American College of Radiology, signifying that it meets the highest standards of the radiology profession.
  • The breast imaging center at Rush, which offers Saturday appointments, is staffed by board-certified radiologists who specialize only in breast imaging.
  • By having separate dedicated facilities at Rush for screening mammograms and diagnostic imaging/procedures, breast radiologists can serve the unique needs of each group of patients better.
  • Radiologists in the breast imaging center at Rush work closely with cancer specialists in The Coleman Foundation Comprehensive Breast Cancer Clinic at Rush. The first of its kind in the Midwest, the clinic brings together medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and breast surgeons to tailor treatment to each patient.
  • The American College of Radiology sets 50 percent as its goal for detecting stage 0 and stage 1 breast cancer via screening mammograms. At Rush, breast radiologists detect 85 to 90 percent of breast cancers at these early stages, a sign of their ability to detect even the smallest cancers at the most treatable stages.