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Breast cancer


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Cancer is a disease in which cells become abnormal and form more cells in an uncontrolled way. With breast cancer, the cancer begins in the tissues that make up the breasts. The cancer cells may form a mass called a tumor. Getting a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) can help find the cancer early. This gives a woman more treatment options and makes it more likely she will survive the cancer.

African-American women are more likely than all other women to die from breast cancer. Their tumors often are found at a later, more advanced stage. So, there are fewer treatment options. Some other reasons for this may include not being able to get health care or not following-up after getting abnormal test results. Other reasons may include distrust of the health care system, the belief that mammograms are not needed, or not having insurance. Also, research has shown that African-American women are more likely to get a form of breast cancer that spreads more quickly.

We do not know how to prevent breast cancer. But there are things you can do to reduce your risk, such as limiting how much alcohol you drink and being physically active.

There also are things you can do to find breast cancer early. Breast cancer screening looks for signs of cancer before a woman has symptoms. Screening can help find breast cancer early when it's most treatable. Two tests are commonly used to screen for breast cancer:

  • Mammograms. A safe, low-dose x-ray exam of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal. Starting at age 40, women should have screening mammograms every 1-2 years. Depending on factors such as family history and your general health, your doctor may recommend a mammogram before age 40.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE). The doctor looks at and feels the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. Ask your doctor if you need a CBE.

Regular screening is the best way to find breast cancer early in most women. If you are at higher risk you may need mammograms at an earlier age or more often. Or, your doctor might want to use other tests too. Let your doctor know if you find a change in your breast, such as a lump or nipple discharge that isn't breast milk.

Free or low-cost mammograms

Some women do not get regular mammograms because of cost and lack of insurance. Yet there are free and low-cost programs to help women get breast cancer screening. You can learn more by contacting the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

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Content last updated: May 18, 2010.

Resources last updated: May 18, 2010.

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