What to Know About the Types of Breast Cancer Screening 

Medically Reviewed By: Pamela J. DiPiro, MD

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer and affects almost 300,000 women in the United States every year. The good news is that with early detection, the chances of successful treatment are higher. This is why breast cancer screening — which uses tests and imaging to detect cancer in people without symptoms — is so important.  

Regular mammograms performed by a physician, in conjunction with breast exams performed by a clinician, are recommended to every woman starting at age 40. However, if you have a higher risk of breast cancer, your healthcare provider may recommend additional screening options such as a breast MRI, or may recommend that screening begin earlier than 40. 

An illustration showing a person getting a mammogram with a doctor who is looking at the results.

What are the types of screening for breast cancer?

Types of breast cancer screening can include:

Mammogram: A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. This test is able to detect small tumors that cannot be felt during a physical breast exam. Most large practices and academic medical centers like Dana-Farber use tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammogram. Although they are perceived to be painful, mammograms are, at most, uncomfortable. 

Dana-Farber physicians recommend that women begin screening at 40 years old. Some younger women who have a higher risk of breast cancer based on a family history of cancer, a history of chest irradiation, or genetic testing results may also benefit from regular mammograms. Speak with your doctor about the risks and benefits of starting screening procedures before 40.  

Breast MRI: A breast MRI is a screening test that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create images of the breast and is recommended for high-risk patients including women with:  

  • A strong family history of breast cancer 
  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations detected on a genetic test 
  • A history of chest radiation 
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome (or a first-degree relative with one of these syndromes) 

Breast MRIs are highly sensitive and images may appear abnormal, and require additional testing, even when there is no cancer leading to a false positive. This screening is not recommended for people with an average risk for breast cancer. MRI is used as a screening tool in conjunction with mammograms. 

Clinical breast exam: A clinical breast exam is a test in which a healthcare provider physically examines your breasts for lumps or other changes. This exam is typically performed for people with breasts during routine check-ups with your doctor. It is used as a screening tool in conjunction with mammograms. 

It’s important to discuss your options for breast cancer screening with your health care provider and to make an informed decision based on your individual circumstances.