When it comes to breast cancer, identifying and diagnosing the disease at its earliest stages, before noticeable symptoms are present, is crucial. It allows for timely intervention and treatment, which can in turn lead to improved outcomes and increased chances of survival.

In this article, we will talk about the 5 benefits of early detection in detail, from increased treatment options to improved survivorship. We will also provide a list of early detection approaches that you can take, including screening methods and cancer monitoring with biomarkers. If you have not been feeling well and have any suspicion that this is indicative of a larger health issue, you should not panic, but you should ensure that you get checked out by a medical practitioner as soon as possible.

Increased treatment options

One of the main benefits of early detection is the increase in treatment options. When breast cancer is detected at its earliest stages, treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these approaches. There is arguably more flexibility in how you can approach your treatment, and there is a higher likelihood of successful outcomes.

Improved survival rates

Early detection of breast cancer is also associated with improved survival rates, especially in the long-term, with diligent monitoring. When breast cancer is diagnosed and treated in its early stages, prompt treatment can be initiated, which can help prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. 

Less aggressive treatment

Detecting breast cancer early reduces the need for more aggressive treatment interventions. Early-stage breast cancer, in some cases, require less invasive procedures, such as a lumpectomy (removal of the tumour and a small margin of the surrounding tissue) instead of a full mastectomy (removal of the entire breast). Hormone therapy or chemotherapy required are also less aggressive when the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.

Preservation of breast tissue

Leading on from the previous point, by being able to opt for a lumpectomy instead of a full mastectomy, cancer patients can preserve a greater amount of breast tissue. This is significant for women who wish to maintain their natural breasts, as the removal of breast tissue can create a profound emotional impact by altering a person’s physical appearance. 

Decreased treatment costs

Finally, early-stage breast cancer treatment is typically less costly than treating advanced-stage cancer. The latter generally requires extensive surgeries, prolonged hospital stays, and aggressive treatment regimens – with lower survivorship. Detecting breast cancer early can result in lower healthcare costs, which is particularly important for individuals that have limited healthcare options and non-subsidy healthcare systems.

Common early detection methods

There are two main components of early breast cancer detection. They can be divided into screening, and diagnostic evaluation.

Screening takes place in the early stages of diagnosis, and common screening methods include Breast Self-Examinations, Clinical Breast Examinations, and Mammography. Following screening, if there are abnormalities found, there may be further diagnostic evaluations such as additional imaging and further biomarker testing to monitor cancer cell proliferation.

Breast Self-Examination (BSE)

A BSE involves regularly examining your breasts to become familiar with their normal look and feel. Performing a BSE monthly can make it much easier to detect any abnormalities and allow you to catch them early. Changes to look out for include lumps, thickening, and abnormalities in the breast or underarm area.

While a BSE is simple and easy to perform, it is worth noting that changes in your breast do not necessarily indicate breast cancer. It should not replace regular medical screenings, and if you find something unusual in your breast or underarm area, you should visit a clinic to follow up with a medical practitioner.

Clinical Breast Examination (CBE)

A CBE is performed by a healthcare professional during a routine check-up. A doctor or a nurse will examine your breasts and underarm area for any abnormalities or signs of cancer, and it is more reliable than a BSE due to the expertise of your healthcare provider. An annual CBE is typically recommended for women between the ages of 25 to 39, and every one to three years for women above the age of 40.

Mammography

Mammography is a medical imaging technique that uses a low dose of X-rays to detect abnormalities in the breast tissue and tissues in the surrounding areas. Mammograms are the most reliable and effective screening tool for early detection of breast cancer, particularly in women above the age of 40. Mammography can help identify breast cancer even before noticeable symptoms appear.

Additional imaging methods

Other imaging methods can be used for additional diagnostic evaluation. One example is a breast ultrasound, which uses sound waves to produce images of the breast tissue. It is an efficient follow-up test following a mammogram, to more closely evaluate a suspicious area identified.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is also used to detect breast abnormalities, and it is typically recommended for women who have a high risk of developing breast cancer. Women who have family history of breast cancer fall into this category.

Biomarker testing

Finally, biomarker testing involves analysing certain substances (biomarkers) in the blood or tissue to provide additional information about the presence or progression of breast cancer. Some examples of biomarker tests include testing for specific genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 and assessing the status of hormone receptors such as oestrogen and progesterone. Biomarker testing may also include evaluating HER2/neu protein expression or monitoring specific enzyme activity such as that of thymidine kinase (TK), which is involved in cancer cell proliferation.

Early detection can save lives

Early detection of breast cancer can allow for the initiation of prompt treatment, which often comes at a lower cost and a higher survival rate. While it does not guarantee the absence of breast cancer or prevent its development, regular screenings and awareness can bring better patient outcomes. If you have any suspicions about your breast health, you should contact your healthcare provider for prompt screening.