Mammograms Are a Powerful Tool for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 330,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women this year. It is the second most common cancer in American women after skin cancers. There is a 1 in 8 chance that a woman will develop breast cancer sometime in her life.

Breast cancer is also the second leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer. More than 43,000 women will die this year from breast cancer.

Breast cancer death rates have been relatively steady since 2007 in women younger than 50. They have continued to decrease in older women, dropping 1% each year from 2013 to 2018.

Early detection as the result of better screening techniques is believed to be one reason for the drop. One extremely powerful tool in the hunt for breast cancer is the mammogram.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast that can help doctors find early signs of breast cancer. It is considered one of the best ways to detect breast cancer early, sometimes several years before it can be felt.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women get a mammogram every other year starting when they turn 50. Any woman with a close relative (parent, sibling, or child) who has had breast cancer should talk to their doctor about getting a mammogram earlier. 

Screening mammograms are done when there are no symptoms or signs of cancer. These usually involve taking at least two images of each breast.

Diagnostic mammograms are done where there is evidence of breast cancer like a lump, breast pain, thickening of the skin of the breast, change in breast size, or nipple discharge. Diagnostic mammograms usually take longer and require more images.

Doctor Checking Brain Radiography

Pros and cons

Early detection with screening mammograms has been shown to reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer in women from 40 to 74, especially for those over 50. There have been no studies to show the benefits of regular screening before 40.

Just like any health care procedure, patients need to talk with their doctors about the benefits and risks of any screening. While mammograms are a great tool, there are some risks to consider.

  • False positives — Sometimes radiologists find an abnormality that is not cancer. Any anomaly should be followed up with a diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy. These false-positive results can lead to anxiety and are most common in younger women.
  • Overdiagnosis and overtreatment — Some screening mammograms find noninvasive tumors in the lining of breast ducts called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). It should be treated but it is not life threatening.
  • False negatives — Cancer is missed in about 20% of the screening mammograms. This can lead to delays in treatment. This sometimes occurs when the woman has dense breasts.
  • Not always lifesaving — Detection does not always result in a positive outcome. The cancer may have already spread, or the woman may have other life-threatening health conditions.
  • Radiation — The amount of radiation from a mammogram is very small, but repeated exposure could cause cancer. The benefits often outweigh the risk, but it is important for the patient to speak with their doctor.

When you get a mammogram for the first time there are a few things you can do to prepare. Your mammogram may require follow-up with an ultrasound or a discussion with your doctor.  

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Here for your unique needs

Women have unique health needs at every stage of their lives — from adolescence to motherhood, and beyond! As we’ve read, women have a higher risk than men of developing breast cancer, heart disease, thyroid issues, and stroke. They need compassionate care that takes all these needs into account.

AltaMed’s experienced team of bilingual and caring doctors takes pride in keeping you healthy at every age, offering you personalized, discreet care for your physical and mental well-being.

Through the State of California’s Department of Health Care Services, the Every Woman Counts program (EWC) provides free early detection cancer screenings, including mammograms. Women who don’t qualify for free EWC screenings can ask about referrals for low-cost options.  

Let our team of bilingual certified enrollment counselors help you explore program options that work best for you and your family.

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Let’s Get Back on Track for Women’s Health Care

Even though COVID-19 has been our nation’s most pressing health concern for the past three months, breast cancer, cervical cancer, heart disease, and diabetes still threaten the health of our communities. Hopefully, you’ve been taking care of yourself, eating right, finding ways to exercise, and taking care of your mental health, but if you’re like most people, you’ve probably let your routine visits to the doctor slide. Health experts worry that, over time, we’ll see more cases of cancer at later stages, increased diabetes complications, and other health conditions that could have been caught early or prevented by routine, preventative care.

AltaMed is doing everything it takes to protect your health – that includes telehealth visits and keeping our facilities clean and sterilized according to the highest standards put forth by the Centers for Disease Control. While some common conditions and issues can be taken care of with a telephone or video chat with your doctor, there are still many preventive treatments and services for women that need to happen in person including routine mammograms, Pap tests, blood pressure screenings, and evaluations to determine if you are taking the right dosage of medication.

Many of these visits are covered at no charge by your health plan, so call us for details and to schedule!

Why You Need a Mammogram

Doctor Checking Radiography

Women have about a 1 in 8 chance that they’ll develop breast cancer in their lifetime. The best way to reduce your risk is to get a mammogram, an X-ray picture of the breast that can help doctors find early signs of breast cancer, sometimes even years before symptoms show up.

Your personal health risks and unique family history will determine when you should start getting mammograms. For healthy women of average risk, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends biennial (once every two years) mammograms beginning at age 50 through age 74. If you have a close relative (parent, sibling, or child) who has had breast cancer, your doctor may recommend that you start getting mammograms as early as age 30. After that, you and your doctor can decide when at how often it’s appropriate to get screened.

In recent years, doctors and specialists have come to question the benefits of breast self-exams at home. Even though self-exams were recommended for years, they haven't been shown to be effective in detecting cancer or improving survival for women with breast cancer. Instead, doctors recommend that you become familiar with what your breasts normally look and feel like. If this changes, make an appointment to see your doctor.

How Often to Screen for Cervical Cancer

Patient Suffering

Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of death for women in the United States, but advances in Pap tests, including increased usage, cut cervical cancer deaths dramatically. Pap tests can save your life!

Pap tests are not just for those who are sexually active or still in their child-bearing years: the average age when women are diagnosed with cervical cancer is 50, and more than 20% of cases are found in women over the age of 65. Pap tests should be started early. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends:

  • If you are between the ages of 21 and 65, get a Pap test every three years
  • If you are between the ages of 30 and 65 and want to screen less frequently, you may be able to have a Pap smear with specific HPV testing every five years

Your doctor will make recommendations based on your own unique health history and your family history.

Schedule Your Well-Woman Visit

Patient Listening

Well-woman visits are essential and should be scheduled in addition to your mammograms and Pap tests. They’re recommended for any woman of reproductive age or older (generally around 13 - 15) and can be scheduled through a primary care doctor or an OB/GYN.

Because well-woman visits focus on preventive care, each visit may be slightly different based on your age and your unique health needs. Your visit may include:

  • Age-appropriate immunizations (for example, the flu vaccine or a TD shot, if needed)
  • Age-appropriate health screenings, which could include checking your blood pressure or a pelvic floor exam
  • Recommendations for additional testing to screen for cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or depression, as needed

In addition to asking about your health history, your doctor may ask about any health goals and make recommendations to help you achieve those goals. To make the most of these visits, come prepared: think about any health questions you have, in advance, and take notes.

We’re Here for Every Age and Every Stage of Your Life

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Trust AltaMed to support your unique health needs. From primary care and specialists to dentistry, behavioral health services, and pharmacy, we are dedicated to caring for women and those they love. Schedule an appointment today.

AltaMed can provide information to you and your family about the best way to protect yourself and your family from COVID-19. To receive the latest news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, sign up today.

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Grow Pink, Grow Healthy: What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the United States. Even though it’s more common among Caucasian and African American women, it’s the leading cancer killer among Latinas. Here’s what you need to know so you can cut your breast cancer risks.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast Cancer X-Ray

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast grow out of control, forming a lump or a tumor. Once a mass is detected, a test called a biopsy is performed to tell if the mass is malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous).

If the mass is benign, you’re out of the danger zone. If the cells are cancerous, they can spread to other parts of the body. Your doctors will help you make the best treatment decisions so you can start as soon as possible.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Group of Woman

Your lifestyle, along with many other factors, can increase your risk of breast cancer:

  • Being physically inactive
  • Beginning menopause at a late age
  • Being overweight, particularly after menopause
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Getting older
  • Having a genetic condition, such as certain mutations in your BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • Not having children or having your first child later in life
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain benign breast diseases
  • Previous radiation therapy to the breast or chest
  • Starting your first menstrual period at an early age
  • Using hormone replacement therapy for a long time
  • Using oral contraceptives

What Are the Symptoms?

Woman with Cancer

In the early stages, the tumor may be too small to feel and does not cause any symptoms. As it grows, you may experience:

  • A new lump in the breast or a lump that has changed
  • A change in the shape or size of the breast
  • Pain in the nipple or breast that doesn’t go away
  • Swollen, red, or flaky skin on the breast
  • Nipple becomes tender or turns inward
  • Nipple leaks blood or non-milk fluid

Talk to your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

When and How to Get Tested

Doctor Doing a Mammography of Her Patient

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, most women should start routine screenings for breast cancer at the age of 50 and continue once every two years until age 74, unless your doctor recommends otherwise. The screening is done with a mammogram, which takes digital images of the breast. It is the best and most reliable way to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before symptoms occur.

Catching it early is important – if cancer is caught in early stages and hasn’t spread to any other part of the body, there’s a 99% survival rate. So, get tested regularly to give yourself your best chance!

What About Self-Exams and Genetic Testing?

You may have heard about these methods – one very old-fashioned, the other high-tech – as ways to help identify cancer early, and you may be wondering if they’re right for you.

Breast self-exams used to be a common recommendation for women, but there has been some debate among doctors if these exams are really beneficial. Some doctors recommend that instead of self-examinations, women learn breast awareness: becoming familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. If you look at the “What Are the Symptoms?” section earlier in this post, you’ll get a good idea for what to be aware of.

Genetic tests are another method that might not be conclusive for everyone. Genetic tests that look for mutations in certain genes can’t tell you if you have cancer; they only tell you how likely you might be to develop it at some point in your life. Even with a positive test result, you may never develop breast cancer at all. Genetic tests are usually only offered to women with a family history of breast cancer. You can still take the test, but it would not be covered by health insurance and could be quite expensive.

The bottom line is, if you are interested in either of these tests, your primary method of defense should still be working with your doctor and following their recommendations for screenings.

Take Action

Women Smiling and Running

No matter your age, you can help minimize your risk for breast cancer with a few simple healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Drink water regularly
  • Eat fresh and nutritious foods
  • Exercise regularly: in fact, if you’ve ever thought about doing an awareness walk, now is the time and AltaMed can help. Even beyond raising funds and awareness for the cause, participating in a walk or fun-run can help you launch your own set of cancer-fighting habits.
  • Get tested today
  • Keep stress levels as low as possible
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Maintain a healthy weight

We’re Here for You, Now More Than Ever

Grow Pink Graphic

Don’t let the fear of going out, stop you from coming in. At AltaMed, we want to ensure that our patients have the proper care and education to take charge of your health. Talk to your doctor about preventive care screenings, like mammograms. It is critical to your overall good health — so don’t wait.

Mammograms Are a Powerful Tool for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer