Mammograms are an important, non-invasive tool for identifying changes in your breast tissue and early detection of cancer. Knowing how often you should get a mammogram can help you to stay healthy as you age.
What Is A Mammogram?
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. It is performed using a safe, low-dose x-ray machine designed to take images of your breast tissue.
Risks And Benefits Of Mammography
The benefits of mammography are significant for women between age 40 and 70, as well as for those women at higher risk of cancer. The most significant benefit is that a mammogram can detect breast cancer at an early stage. Early detection improves a woman’s chance of survival, reducing the risk of dying from the disease by 25-30% or more. Having a mammogram done regularly provides a simple way for a woman and her doctor to monitor changes in her breast health over long periods of time.
For most women, the benefits outweigh the risks which include overdiagnosis and overtreatment. This occurs when a mammogram finds ductal carcinoma in situ (sometimes referred to as “DCIS”) or a small breast cancer that would have never caused symptoms or problems if left untreated. These types of breast cancers may never present a health problem, or a person may die from another cause before the breast cancer became a problem.
Other risks include false positives which require the patient to undergo additional testing, such as an MRI, ultrasound or biopsy to diagnose a possible issue. In most cases, the abnormality is not cancer.
The Necessity Of Mammograms
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women in the United States. For many women, a mammogram is one of the best ways to detect breast cancer before it becomes life threatening.
A mammogram can detect abnormal breast tissue as much as two years before it becomes cancerous. It can also detect it before it becomes large enough to be felt through a manual examination of the area.
If your mammogram shows abnormal tissue, you will likely have to undergo additional testing. This testing may include an ultrasound of the breast or an MRI for a more detailed image of the area of concern identified in the mammogram. In some cases, you may have to undergo a biopsy procedure to remove a sample of the abnormal breast tissue and have it laboratory tested to determine if the tissue is cancerous.
Mammography Recommendations Based On Age
Breast cancer in women younger than 50 is much less common than in older women. As women age, however, their risk of developing breast cancer increases. For most women of any age, a mammogram every one to two years is beneficial, with some exceptions as described below:
Recommendations For Women Under Age 40
For women under age 40, mammograms are recommended only if abnormalities in the breast tissue have been detected through manual examination or other testing. The breast tissue in younger women tends to be dense which can obscure signs of cancer, making detection by mammography difficult and unreliable.
As women age, dense breast tissue becomes less of an issue. With age, the breast tissue becomes fattier and less dense.
Recommendations For Women Age 40-49
After age 40, a mammogram is more reliable in helping to detect breast cancer. That said, leading health organizations disagree to some degree on when to begin getting mammograms and how often they should be repeated.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends screening mammography every 1–2 years beginning at age 40 years for women at average risk of breast cancer. Screening should continue until at least age 75 years.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force, the American College of Physicians and the American Cancer Society recommend that women in the 40-49 age group discuss the need for a mammography with their doctors, and make informed decisions based on the woman’s risk profile, concerning when she should start mammography screening and the frequency.
The most important factors in that decision will be the woman’s individual cancer risk profile, family history and personal preferences about the health risks presented by a mammography. If breast cancer runs in your family, you should begin mammography screening by age 40, and some women at very high risk may need to begin screening even sooner.
Recommendations For Women Age 50-69
For women ages 50-69, the benefits of mammography easily outweigh the risks. Women in this age group realize the most overall benefit of mammography because the condition of their breast tissue makes mammograms more reliable. Women aged 50-59 who got mammograms had a 14 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer than those who did not have a mammogram. Women aged 60-69 who had mammograms, had a 33 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer than those who did not have one.
Most leading health organizations agree on the recommendation that women ages 50-69 have regular mammograms. At Raleigh Gynecology and Wellness, we recommend that women in this age group continue to have a mammogram every year in addition to monthly self-examinations.
Recommendations For Women Over Age 70
For many women age 70 and older, regular mammography every one to two years continues to be beneficial. For some women over 70, however, the benefits of mammography may not be worth the risks.
In this age group, mammograms can result in overtreatment and subject elderly women to the risks of harmful side effects of breast cancer treatment.
Also, women aged 70 to 75 are more likely to die from other causes than from early stage breast tumors detected through mammogram screening. When breast cancer is diagnosed, the treatment can be difficult for an elderly woman to endure. Some women are at increased risk for complications from surgery and for side effects caused by chemotherapy and hormone therapy. Women in this age group should discuss the risks and benefits with their doctor to decide whether the benefits of regular mammograms outweigh the risks in their individual case.
Regularity In The Procedure Is Best
Routine mammography decreases the risk of death from breast cancer by 30 to 48%. Medical research has shown that the vast majority of deaths due to breast cancer occur in women who have never had mammographic screening.
Regular mammography helps detect cancers that grow very quickly. Fast growing cancers can spread to your lymph nodes even while they are still small and are even able to double in volume in just one month. Keeping up with regular mammograms can prevent this kind of cancer from becoming deadly.
Talk To The Mammogram Professionals At Raleigh Gynecology And Wellness
If you have questions about the risks and benefits of regular mammography screening, contact the mammogram specialists at Raleigh Gynecology and Wellness. They are available to answer your questions. If you have breast cancer in your family or you are over age 40 and have never had a mammogram, contact us to schedule an appointment. You can also reach us by phone at (919) 636-6670.