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.
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.
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.