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Am Fam Physician. 2012;85(6):654-655

Guideline source: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Evidence rating system used? Yes

Literature search described? Yes

Guideline developed by participants without relevant financial ties to industry? Not reported

Published source: Obstetrics & Gynecology, August 2011

Breast cancer–related death can be reduced through effective screening, which typically includes imaging, clinical examination, and self-examination or awareness. However, there is controversy regarding the value of these screening techniques, the age at which they should be initiated and stopped, and how often they should be performed. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends using all three techniques to screen for breast cancer (Table 1).

OrganizationMammographyClinical breast examinationBreast self-examination instructionBreast self-awareness
American College of Obstetricians and GynecologistsAnnually in persons 40 years and olderEvery one to three years in persons 20 to 39 years of ageConsider for high-risk personsRecommended
Annually in persons 40 years and older
American Cancer SocietyAnnually in persons 40 years and olderEvery one to three years in persons 20 to 39 years of ageOptional for persons 20 years and olderRecommended
Annually in persons 40 years and older
National Cancer InstituteEvery one to two years in persons 40 years and olderRecommendedNot recommended
National Comprehensive Cancer NetworkAnnually in persons 40 years and olderEvery one to three years in persons 20 to 39 years of ageRecommendedRecommended
Annually in persons 40 years and older
U.S. Preventive Services Task ForceBiennially in persons 50 to 74 years of ageInsufficient evidenceNot recommended


Women 20 years and older should be taught about breast self-awareness. Breast self-awareness is a woman's awareness of the normal feel and appearance of her breasts. The objective is to highlight the importance of self-detection and timely assessment of symptoms. The effects of breast self-awareness education have not yet been studied.

Clinical breast examination should be performed annually in women 40 years and older, and every one to three years in women 20 to 39 years of age. Reviews support combining clinical examination with mammography. The usefulness of clinical examination in women with a low prevalence of breast cancer (i.e., women 20 to 39 years of age) is not known.

Mammography should be performed annually in women 40 years and older. Education should be provided regarding the predictive value of mammography; the possibility of false-positive and false-negative results; and the possibility of needing more imaging or biopsies based on screening results. Decisions regarding screening should be based on individual risks and benefits. Some women may prefer annual screening because it maximizes cancer detection, whereas others may prefer biennial screening because it provides most of the benefits, but reduces the frequency of screening and possibility of requiring more testing. Table 2 lists the relative risks for breast cancer mortality from mammography screening trials.

Age (years)Trials includedRelative risk for breast cancer mortality (95% CrI)NNI to prevent one breast cancer death (95% CrI)
39 to 498*0.85 (0.75 to 0.96)1,904 (929 to 6,378)
50 to 596†0.86 (0.75 to 0.99)1,339 (322 to 7,455)
60 to 6920.68 (0.54 to 0.87)377 (230 to 1,050)
70 to 741§1.12 (0.73 to 1.72)Not available

Although most women with breast cancer do not have identifiable risk factors, those with certain characteristics have an increased prevalence of breast cancer compared with the general population. Physicians should regularly assess breast cancer risk to determine if a woman is at average, increased, or high risk, and to decide which women qualify for enhanced screening. Table 3 lists factors that increase the relative risk of breast cancer.

Relative riskFactor
> 4.0Age (65 years and older vs. younger than 65 years, although risk increases across all ages until 80 years of age)
Biopsy-confirmed atypical hyperplasia
Certain inherited genetic mutations for breast cancer (BRCA1 and/or BRCA2)
Mammographically dense breasts
Personal history of breast cancer
2.1 to 4.0High bone density (postmenopausal)
High-dose radiation to chest
High endogenous estrogen or testosterone levels
Two first-degree relatives with breast cancer
1.1 to 2.0Alcohol consumption
Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
Early menarche (younger than 12 years)
Height (tall)
High socioeconomic status
Late age at first full-term pregnancy (older than 30 years)
Late menopause (older than 55 years)
Never breastfed a child
No full-term pregnancies
Obesity (postmenopausal)/adult weight gain
One first-degree relative with breast cancer
Personal history of endometrial, ovarian, or colon cancer
Recent and long-term use of estrogen and progestin
Recent oral contraceptive use

Enhanced screening should be recommended, and risk reduction methods should be discussed, in women who test positive for BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. Women with an estimated lifetime breast cancer risk of at least 20 percent based on risk models that rely mostly on family history, but who have not been tested or who have tested negative for BRCA gene mutations can also be offered enhanced screening. Enhanced screening includes biannual clinical examination, annual mammography, annual magnetic resonance imaging, and guidance in self-examination. Women with a first-degree relative with these gene mutations, but who are untested themselves are typically treated as if they have the mutations.

Breast magnetic resonance imaging is not recommended in women at average risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends magnetic resonance imaging in high-risk women (i.e., at least a 20 percent lifetime risk).

Coverage of guidelines from other organizations does not imply endorsement by AFP or the AAFP.

This series is coordinated by Michael J. Arnold, MD, Assistant Medical Editor.

A collection of Practice Guidelines published in AFP is available at

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