5 Breast Screening Methods That Every Woman Should Know

breast health

Breast cancer is the leading type of cancer in women, affecting one in nine women in Canada. Lifestyle factors as well as minimizing environmental influences can certainly reduce your risk.  Performing regular breast exams and getting screened regularly will decrease your risk even further.

The key to successful recovery from breast cancer (as with any cancer) lies in early detection.  Participating in a detection program will increase your chances of detecting breast cancer in its earliest stages.  Screening is recommended for all women over the age of 40, even earlier if there is strong family history, though some are easy to adopt even earlier.

Here are the five screening techniques available for breast cancer detection:


Mammography is likely the technique with which people are the most familiar.  It involves x-raying the breast tissue to identify any abnormalities.  The breast is pressed between two plates – pressure is applied to get a clear picture. Usually, two x-rays are taken of each breast, one from the top and one from the side.


Ultrasound detects breast changes by sending high -frequency sound waves into the breast. The pattern of echoes from these sound waves is converted into an image of the breast’s interior. Ultrasound may be helpful in distinguishing between solid masses and cysts (fluid-filled sacs). Unlike mammography, ultrasound cannot detect small calcium deposits that may be present in the breast and that sometime indicate cancer, nor does it identify small tumors. Ultrasounds is very useful to confidently diagnose benign conditions and can reduce the need for an immediate biopsy.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) takes cross-sectional images through different parts of the body, and is a very sensitive imaging tool for finding breast cancer. MRI technology is better than either mammography or ultrasound in determining the extent of the cancer and its exact location, but it can be expensive which makes it less practical. It is the best tool for women with silicone implants.

Breast Exam

Clinical breast exams are shown to be as effective as mammography in reducing breast cancer mortality. The American Society of Breast Surgeons says that breast self exam is “as accurate as mammograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at detecting new breast cancers in high-risk women.”


Thermography is a painless, non invasive, early detection method that gives women of all ages the opportunity to detect breast disease at an early stage without exposure to radiation. It uses a digital infrared camera and a high speed computer for imaging and measurement of body tissue heat energy. Tumors and areas of concern typically show high temperatures due to increased blood flow and elevated metabolic activity.  A single mammogram exposes you to 1000X the radiation of a regular chest x-ray, which can lead to new cancer formation as well as heart damage.

Thermography is particularly useful for younger women, under fifty years of age, whose breast tissue is denser which typically makes it more difficult for mammography to identify suspicious lesions. Thermography does offer these distinct advantages:

  • greater comfort – no contact or squeezing of the breast tissue is required.
  • earlier detection – problems with tissue function can be found before structural abnormalities are seen on x-ray
  • examination of the whole chest, breast and armpit areas, and is good for all breast types – young, dense, fibrocystic, and women on hormone replacement therapy.
  • improved chances for early detection of fast-growing, active tumors between traditional mammograms.

Information gathered from thermographs may also be used to supplement clinical breast examinations and mammograms, as it can guide doctors to the specific area of the breast that may need particularly close examination.

About mammograms…A controversial review published in the Lancet stated that mammographic screening likely reduces breast cancer mortality by a mere 0.5%. This means that for every 2000 women invited for screening over a 10 year period, only one will have her life prolonged.  Screening also leads to overdiagnosis and overtreatment, with an estimated 30% increase of treatment in women who would not need it otherwise.  For the same 2000 women, 10 healthy women, who would not have been diagnosed if there had not been screening, will be diagnosed with breast cancer and will be treated unnecessarily.

Another study stated that one fifth of cancers seen on mammogram spontaneously disappear. Another research study that followed 110,000 women who underwent periodic mammograms with the same number of women who did not. At the end of 5 years, everybody was screened, and the surprising finding was that the mammogram women had 22% more invasive cancers than the non-mammogram group. These findings suggest that perhaps mammography screening does more harm than good.

Regardless of what you choose to be your best option, you should be informed of all screening methods available to you, with their respective advantages and drawbacks. Breast exams, at a minimum, are of benefit to every woman and should be performed monthly, a few days into the beginning of each cycle (when hormone levels are at their lowest).

Tasleem Kassam