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4 things you need to know about breast cancer screening

It is a well-known fact that breast cancer is a highly treatable disease with an excellent prognosis if - and this is very important – if you catch it early. Prevention is the best form of cure. Unfortunately, it is also currently the most prevalent form of cancer in women, both globally and in the Middle East, where it accounts for 22% to 47% of all female cancers, varying from country to country.



1. What are the leading breast cancer screening methods?

There are several things you can do:

Self-exam – This involves checking your breast for lumps or irregularities. Lie down on your bed and use the pads of your finger in a circular motion, at different parts of the breast. Make sure you do this in an organised manner to cover the whole breast, and also check under your armpits. Then, proceed to carry out the same steps while standing. If you do feel a lump, don’t worry as most of these are benign. However, it is best to book an appointment with a doctor if you spot something.

Clinical exam – This is when a doctor or healthcare professional examines you using similar steps as above. This kind of exam will include both a visual and physical check. The benefit is that they’re better trained to spot abnormalities, whether in appearance or composition of the breast.

Mammogram – A mammogram is breast X-ray using specialized equipment. This remains the most accurate way to detect lumps.

MRI scans are also used, but only in high risk cases. 


2. When should you get a screening?

Doctors recommend that you start with self-exams when you’re in your early twenties and go for clinical exams from your late twenties to thirties. In the West, mammograms are typically advised for women over 50, but with breast cancer presenting a decade earlier in the Middle East, it is a good idea to consider getting it done once in two years after you turn 40. At the very least, begin a conversation with your doctor about mammograms by this age. Your doctor will take your family history and other risk factors into account and guide you accordingly.


3. What are some symptoms or changes you should watch out for?

It’s not just about feeling for a lump - an important part of a self-exam is looking for visual changes in your breast. Any sort of skin dimpling, distortion of the shape, or unusual swelling that lingers for long should not be ignored. Pain, while not common, can be a symptom too.

Do remember to pay special attention to your armpits as well. Look for lumps, swelling, discolorations and persistent pain.


4. What are the benefits and risks of screening?  

There are a few risks associated with screening, chiefly misdiagnoses. Occasionally, you may get a false positive, that is, a benign tumour may be mistakenly identified as malignant, leading to expensive, time consuming tests and stress. You may even get a false negative, or a failure to identify the cancer. But these cases are rare. Screening, as we’ve mentioned at the start, is the single best way to deal with breast cancer, by helping you catch it before it becomes invasive or metastasizes (spreads).