Guest Column: Early detection is key with breast cancer

Published 10:37 am Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dr. Don Smith

Mayo Clinic Health System



According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the fifth leading cause of death among women. Detecting breast cancer early is key to the best possible outcome. Undiagnosed breast cancer can lead to serious complications and even death. Women should become familiar with their breasts and conduct monthly self-exams to ensure there are no lumps or other red flags. General warning signs of breast cancer include:

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—General breast pain
—A new lump in the breast
—Breast thickening or swelling
—Shift in the breast shape or size
—Changes in the nipple, including bloody discharge
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.


In addition to monthly self-exams, a mammogram, or X-ray of the breast, is a proven method of determining if you have any breast abnormalities. Although mammograms don’t reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, screening does allow your provider to detect breast cancer in its early stages, which is important for effective diagnosis and treatment.

At Mayo Clinic and Mayo Clinic Health System, providers offer mammograms to women beginning at age 40 and continuing annually. However, when to begin mammogram screening and how often to repeat it is a personal decision. We recommend women and their providers discuss the benefits, risks and limitations of mammograms and decide together what is best.

A yearly physical exam is a good way to review your risk for breast cancer and discuss an appropriate screening schedule. And, as always, your health care provider is the best resource for any questions or concerns about your health.

You can schedule a mammogram by either talking with your health care provider or calling our Radiology Department. You and your health care provider are notified of the results.

What if more is needed?

When a mammogram is not conclusive, or shows an abnormality, a diagnostic mammogram is done to take a closer look at the area of abnormality. In a diagnostic mammogram several different magnified views of the breast are taken.

These views help the radiologist determine if the abnormality needs further testing, such as a breast ultrasound.  You and your provider will be notified of the results the same day, and a letter will be mailed to your home.

If further testing is needed, you’d be referred to a specialist in our facility. Our process is streamlined to have you seen within one to two days.

Sage Program

For individuals whose insurance plans do not cover screening mammograms or for those who are uninsured, the Minnesota Department of Health’s Sage Screening Program, might be able to help. Sage is a breast and cervical cancer screening program. For eligible women, Sage provides free office visits for breast and cervical exams, as well as a screening mammogram and Pap smears. If one of your screening tests shows a problem, Sage covers many diagnostic services and can often cover treatment, if needed.

For more information, talk to your health care provider or call the Minnesota Department of Health, 1-888-643-2584.

Don Smith, M.D., is a general surgeon practicing on the Austin campus of Mayo Clinic Health System – Albert Lea and Austin. For more information please call 507-433-8758 or go to