A Guide To Mammogram Screening

By:    Published: August 9, 2012

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Breast cancer has become one of the biggest health threats to women all over the U.S. With the increased awareness of this disease, more women are interested in methods of early detection. Mammograms are the best breast cancer screening test currently available. This article will answer questions about how a mammograms works and when and where women should get these tests.

What Is A Mammogram?

A mammogram is a breast cancer screening test. The test is completed by taking a low-dose X-ray of the breasts. Each breast is pressed between two plates to provide the best picture possible. From the images produced, doctors can look for any changes or abnormalities that may indicate breast cancer. These images provide more information about breast tissue than a physical breast exam completed by a doctor or self breast exam, so it’s important that women get these tests at the appropriate age. Although mammograms can be uncomfortable or even painful for some women, the images are captured within just a few seconds so this discomfort is very temporary.

When Should I Get A Mammogram?

The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older should get a mammogram every year. These tests should continue as long as the woman is in good health – basically, they should continue as long as a woman is healthy enough to endure cancer treatment if she were to be diagnosed.

Exceptions to this rule exist for women who fall into a “high-risk” group. These women are advised to get yearly mammograms beginning at age 30. In addition, these women are often advised to have MRIs in addition to their yearly mammograms.

Am I Considered "High-Risk?"

Since women who are “high-risk” need to start getting mammograms earlier, it’s important for women to understand how this label. If any of the following descriptions apply to you, you are considered to be at a high risk for breast cancer:

  • Having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation (also known as the breast cancer gene)
  • Having a first-degree relative with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation (this could be a mother, father, brother, sister or child)
  • Have had radiation therapy to the chest area between the ages of 10 and 30 years
  • Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of 20 percent or greater according to risk assessment tools (which are based mostly on family history of breast cancer)
  • Have a genetic disease such as Cowden syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome or hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (or having a first-degree relative with one of these conditions)

You are considered to be at a moderately increased risk for breast cancer if you:

  • Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of 15 percent to 20 percent, according to risk assessment tools (which are based mostly on family history of breast cancer)
  • Have had breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ, lobular carcinoma in situ, atypical ductal hyperplasia, or atypical lobular hyperplasia
  • Have extremely dense breasts or unevenly dense breasts

If any of these factors apply to you, it’s important to talk to your doctor about getting mammograms and/or MRIs. Your doctor can review your family history, personal health and other factors with you to help determine your risk. If you aren’t sure if you have the breast cancer gene, your doctor can also provide more information about whether you need to be tested for this mutation.

Why Should I Get A Mammogram?

Mammograms are the best method for detecting breast cancer as early as possible. This is because they provide a closer look at what is going on in the breast tissue than a manual exam alone can provide. According to the National Cancer Institute, clinical trials have found that mammograms help reduce the number of deaths for women ages 40 to 74, especially for those over age 50.

Where Can I Get A Mammogram?

Mammograms are available at many health care locations. Ask your doctor for a recommendation, or call local breast clinics, private radiology offices, doctors’ offices or hospital radiology departments for more information. Some local clinics have a mobile van or special events where women can get mammograms at a low cost or even for free. Check the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER for more information about low-cost and free mammography screening programs.

Women should ask their doctor or the staff where they are getting their mammogram to ensure that the facility is certified by the Food and Drug Administration under the Mammography Quality Standards Act. This ensures they are getting the best possible screening and that the equipment used at the facility is high-quality and up-to-date.

Keep in mind that, although mammograms are considered to be the most effective screening tool for detecting breast cancer early, clinical breast exams are still recommended. Make sure that you get both of these screening tests regularly once you hit the appropriate age. In addition, mammograms aren’t perfect; they may lead to over-diagnosis and unnecessary radiation exposure. However, the benefits far outweigh the risks when following the guidelines detailed above.

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