Many of you are aware that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s an important time for all of us to be reminded of the importance of early detection. Breast cancer is the second most common kind of cancer in women (after skin cancer). About 1 in 8 women born today in the United States will get breast cancer at some point.
The good news is that most women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early.
- If you are a woman age 40 to 49, talk with your doctor about when to start getting mammograms and how often to get them.
- If you are a woman age 50 to 74, be sure to get a mammogram every 2 years. You may also choose to get them more often.
Talk to your doctor about your risk for breast cancer, especially if a close family member of yours had breast or ovarian cancer. Your doctor can help you decide when and how often to get mammograms.
Screening tests can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.
Certain screening tests may be suggested only for people who have a high risk for certain cancers. Anything that increases the chance of cancer is called a cancer risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer.
Some screening tests are used only for people who have known risk factors for certain types of cancer. People known to have a higher risk of cancer than others include those who:
- Have had cancer in the past; or
- Have a family history of cancer; or
- Have certain gene mutations (changes) that have been linked to cancer.
People who have a high risk of cancer may need to be screened more often or at an earlier age than other people. Breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, but many women with breast cancer have no symptoms. This is why regular breast cancer screening is so important.
What is a mammogram and what can I expect when I get one?
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast and allows your doctor see changes that can’t be felt during a breast exam. Mammograms use a very low level of x-rays, which are a type of radiation, but they are very safe.
If you have had any changes or problems with your breasts, talk to the technologist doing the mammogram. Also describe any medical history that could affect your breast cancer risk—such as surgery, hormone use, breast cancer in your family, or if you’ve had breast cancer before. Also,be sure to let the tech know if you’re breastfeeding or if you think you might be pregnant.
When you get mammograms, the nurse will place your breasts, one at a time, between two plastic plates and take pictures of them. Mammograms can be uncomfortable for some women, but they don’t hurt. The technologist will usually take at least two views of your breast and in some cases, may take three or four images to get a better view. Though the X-ray itself only takes a few seconds, the whole process takes about 20 minutes.
How to prepare for your mammogram:
- Try to use a facility that specializes in mammograms and does many mammograms a day.
- If possible, go to the same facility every time so that your mammograms can easily be compared from year to year.
- If you’re going to a new or different facility, bring a list of the places and dates of mammograms, biopsies, or other breast treatments you’ve had before.
- If you’ve had mammograms at another facility, bring your old records with you (or have them sent there) so the old pictures can be compared to the new ones.
- Schedule your mammogram when your breasts are not tender or swollen to help reduce discomfort and get good pictures. Try to avoid the week just before your period.
- On the day of the exam, don’t wear deodorant or antiperspirant. Some of these contain substances that can show up on the x-ray as white spots. If you’re not going home afterwards, you may want to take your deodorant with you to put on after your exam.
- You might find it easier to wear a skirt or pants, so that you’ll only need to remove your top and bra for the mammogram.
- Discuss any new findings or problems in your breasts with your healthcare provider before getting the mammogram.
Don’t be afraid of mammograms! Remember that only 2 to 4 screening mammograms in 1,000 lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Different tests can be used to look for and diagnose breast cancer. If your doctor finds an area of concern on a mammogram, or if you have symptoms that could mean breast cancer, you will need more tests to know for sure if it’s cancer or not.
Call your doctor and schedule your mammogram appointment today.
Sources: National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society