Health Care Public Health

How a Simple Mammogram Could Save Your Life

A female patient listening to her female physician.

When you feel healthy, it’s tempting to delay annual checkups and screenings. But having no symptoms doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned for your long-term health, especially as you grow older.

We know that underlying medical conditions often go undetected for too long without regular preventive care. Health should always be a top priority no matter how busy we get with our families and schedules.

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women in the U.S. and the risk for getting it increases with age. The highest breast cancer rates are in women over age 70, so it’s important to not let your guard down and keep up with your yearly screenings for life. Annual mammograms are still the top recommended screening for women, allowing the earliest possible detection of breast cancer — even before you experience symptoms.

The Key to Lifesaving Early Detection

A mammogram is a powerful tool because of its ability to catch breast cancer early. In fact, it can detect breast cancer up to two years before a tumor can be felt by you or your doctor.

Catching cancer early means:

  • Therapies like breast conservation therapy will be most effective
  • Treatment can begin early, possibly before the cancer spreads to other parts of your body
  • You’ll have the best chance for a cure

Many women with breast cancer experience no symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, many decades of research show women who have regular mammograms are more likely to discover breast cancer early, are less likely to need aggressive treatment (like surgery or chemotherapy) and are more likely to be cured.

Screening vs. Diagnostic Mammograms

Mammography uses X-rays to take images of your breasts. Screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms use the same equipment and procedures; they differ in the number and type of images made.

Screening mammograms are for women who have no signs of breast cancer such as a lump, pain or change in breast size or shape. These simple appointments are often complete in 30 minutes or less. Breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast.

Diagnostic mammograms are prescribed when a screening mammogram shows an area of concern. They take more detailed images from different angles to help your care team make the most accurate diagnosis.

Screening if You’re High-Risk

If your risk for breast cancer is higher than average, your care team may recommend additional screenings that include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. Although these can be combined with a mammogram, they are not a replacement.

MRI

Instead of X-rays, an MRI scan uses a magnetic field to make images. Although an MRI can find breast cancer that mammography misses, it doesn’t find all breast cancers. An MRI is effective for women whose health history includes:

  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
  • Immediate family member — mother, sister or child — with BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Radiation treatment to the chest between ages 10 and 30

Ultrasound

This exam uses sound waves to make an image. Women who are pregnant or at very high risk for breast cancer, and who can’t have an MRI or be exposed to X-rays, can benefit from an ultrasound. It’s also better at finding breast cancers in women who have dense breast tissue, which is more difficult to diagnose using mammography.

Know Your Risk for Breast Cancer

It’s important to know your risk for breast cancer. Some risk factors you can control, like your weight and lifestyle. Others you can’t, including:

  • Age: rates increase after age 40 and are highest among women over 70
  • Density of breast tissue
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • First menstrual period before age 12
  • Genetic mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2
  • History of fibroids or other benign breast conditions
  • Race and ethnicity

When you understand the breast cancer risk factors you can control, you can manage them better with the guidance of expert, caring physicians who have your whole health in mind.

Feel Empowered With Preventive Care

If you’re 40 or older, an annual screening mammogram may be recommended by your doctor. Those 65 and older should prioritize their annual mammograms.

Your long-term well-being is important to us at every stage of life. And breast cancer screenings are focused on protecting your whole health for years to come. Call your provider today and get your annual mammogram scheduled.

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