Q & A Library

Print this page | Sign up for free e-bulletins
 | Bookmark This Page

Finding Breast Cancer Early?
With all the controversy about mammograms and breast self-exams, I'm very confused about what women are supposed to do these days. Have mammograms or not? Do self-examinations or not? Can you clarify?
Answer (Published 10/27/2003)

Updated on 6/28/2005

It's easy to get confused when studies cast doubt on the usefulness of self-examination and on whether or not regular mammograms really do save lives. In 2003, in an attempt to address some of the questions women had, the American Cancer Society (ACS) updated its recommendations and, for the first time, included special suggestions for women at high risk and older women.

Related Weil Products
Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging for Cancer Support - Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging - Do you or a loved one have cancer? The Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging online guide has simple, effective preventive health information and tools including an exclusive version of Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid. Join today and get 14 days free!

In a big change, the ACS no longer recommends monthly breast self-examination (BSE) for all women starting at the age of 20. Instead, the recommendations state that all women should be told about the benefits and limitations of BSE when they're in their twenties so they can decide whether or not to do it. Two large studies, one in China and one in Russia, found that breast self-exams don't reduce breast cancer deaths. In addition, women participating in both studies who examined their breasts had higher rates of biopsies for benign disorders than those who didn't do BSE.

While it may be acceptable to skip BSE, I believe that all women should be familiar with the way their breasts normally feel so that they can recognize any changes that may develop. The ACS did not change its recommendation that women ages 20 to 39 should have a breast exam by a physician every three years or that women age 40 and older have an annual breast exam by a physician.

As for mammograms, the ACS continues to recommend that beginning at age 40 all women have them annually. In the past, however, no specific recommendation was included for older women. However, evidence from a study reported in the November 19, 2002 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine showed for the first time that mammograms benefit women over the age of 75. The ACS now recommends that older women continue having annual mammograms, as long as they don't have any serious, chronic health problems.

As for women at high risk (because of family or personal history of breast cancer), the ACS recommended discussing beginning mammograms earlier, having more frequent clinical exams by one's physician, or having additional tests such as breast ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Noninvasive imaging technologies are beginning to become available with the hope of detecting cancers earlier; however, this research is in its infancy and mammography remains our best screening tool for now.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved Creative Commons Copyright Notice
A portion of the original material created by Weil Lifestyle on (specifically, all question and answer-type articles in the Dr. Weil Q&A Library) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Weil Vitamin Advisor
Get your FREE personalized vitamin recommendation & supplement plan today!

Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging
Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Start eating for your health - begin your free trial now.

Dr. Weil's Spontaneous Happiness
Achieve emotional well-being in just eight weeks! Start your 10-day free trial now!

Vitamin Library
Supplement your knowledge with Dr. Weil's essential vitamin facts. Learn why they are necessary and more.

Dr. Weil's Optimum Health Plan
Your 8-week plan to wellness.
Begin your journey today!

Dr. Weil's Head-to-Toe Wellness Guide
Your guide to natural health.
Use the Wellness Guide today!

Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Food Pyramid

Our interactive tool can help improve overall health through diet.

Condition Care Guide
Learn about health conditions from acne to vertigo, and Dr. Weil's view of the best treatment options for each.

Healthy Recipes
Discover a treasure trove of healthy, healing foods and creative, delicious ways to prepare them.

Q&A Library
Over 2,000 questions from you and their corresponding answers from Dr. Weil.

Copyright © 2015 Weil Lifestyle
Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment.

Ad Choice
Advertising Notice

This Site and third parties who place advertisements on this Site may collect and use information about your visits to this Site and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like to obtain more information about these advertising practices and to make choices about online behavioral advertising, please click here