When should I get a mammogram?
by Amy Teng, DO
For those of you who have not visited with your primary health provider or OBGYN recently (and I strongly recommend that you do!), you may be wondering when you need to start getting mammograms. Yes, the dreaded mammogram! If you have heard from your friends about the discomforts of the test, you may be reluctant to go. I am not going to try and tell you that it is not uncomfortable or a little awkward having your breasts compressed during the mammogram, but I will try to explain why having your mammogram is just as important as getting your annual physical exam.
What exactly is a mammogram?
It is an imaging study for the breasts using low energy X-rays. It can be a screening test (routinely done to look for any abnormalities or signs of cancer) or a diagnostic test (follow-up on an abnormal finding). The goal of mammography is to detect early signs of breast cancer. With modern imaging techniques today, only 15% of breast tumors can be felt on physical exam, which means early stage cancer can be missed on exams but detected by mammography. During the mammogram, two parallel plates compress the breast. The pressure from the plates is necessary in order to even out the breast tissue and improve the image quality. Two views of each breast are obtained in a routine screening mammogram. Results will be reported to your doctor ranging from normal to suspected malignancy.
When should I start getting mammograms?
You may have heard about or read articles recommending starting mammograms between the ages of 40-50. In the past, ACOG recommended mammograms every 1-2 years starting at age 40, with yearly mammograms at age 50. Since 2011, ACOG has supported yearly mammograms starting at age 40. This is consistent with recommendations from the American Cancer Society, the American College of Radiology, and the American Society of Breast Surgeons. The recommendations are based on data showing that routine screening improves detection of early breast cancer and can decrease breast cancer mortality. We also know that women in the US have a high incidence of breast cancer, and that progression of breast cancer can be more rapid for women aged 40-49 compared to older women. Although the overall incidence of breast cancer is higher in older women, our goal is early detection and treatment.
What if I have an abnormal result?
If your mammogram shows something that is a probable benign (non-cancerous) finding, then your doctor may recommend a follow-up exam and repeat mammogram at a shorter time interval. If the mammogram shows a suspicious abnormality, then your doctor may recommend a biopsy for further evaluation.
Do I have to worry if I am under the age of 40?
For those of you who are under the age of 40, we encourage you to come in for your annual exam and breast exam. It is important to have breast “self-awareness” so you know what your normal breast tissue looks and feels like. We want you to be conscious of your body and any changes that occur. Taking charge of your health starts at an early age!
What about family history?
Exploring your family history for any type of cancer is important. Women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer can have increased risks developing breast cancer. If you have known family members diagnosed with cancer, inform your doctor, as you may need breast cancer screening at an earlier age.
Thank you for reading, and I encourage you to follow up on my next blog about hereditary cancer.