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

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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.

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Everything to Know about Breast Cancer

ANYONE can get breast cancer. No matter your gender, having breast tissue puts you at risk.

One in eight U.S. women, or 13%, are going to develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. An estimated 297,790 women are going to develop invasive breast cancer before the year is out.

Men’s risk of developing invasive breast cancer is one in 833, but it still happens. An estimated 2,800 U.S. men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer before the end of the year.

It is the most diagnosed cancer among U.S. women representing nearly one-third of all new cancer cases. There are more than 3.8 million women living either with breast cancer or having just been treated for breast cancer.

Despite all of this, it is survivable.

What Is It?

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast grow out of control, forming a lump or tumor. Once a mass is detected, a test called a biopsy is performed to determine 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. Once it’s confirmed you have breast cancer, your doctors will help you start treatment as soon as possible.

Always feel free to get a second opinion regardless of the results being positive or negative.

Breast Cancer Disparities

Breast cancer is the most common form of the cancer in the U.S. after non-melanoma skin cancer and the second deadliest after lung cancer. There has been a 43% decline in breast cancer deaths over the last three decades. Early diagnosis, awareness, and more effective treatments are the reason.

However, there continues to be a mortality gap between white women and women of color:

  • Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. for Black and Hispanic women.
  • Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than women of any other racial or ethnic group.
  • One in five Black women is diagnosed with aggressive subtypes like triple-negative breast cancer and inflammatory breast cancer — more than any other racial or ethnic group.
  • Black women are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age and with a more advanced stage of breast cancer.

Know Your Risks

Everyone has a chance of developing breast cancer, but there are factors that increase your risk. Race and ethnicity play a role, as does gender. Family history, however, is the biggest factor. A parent or sibling who develops breast cancer increases the risk for you.

Other factors:

What to Look For

Breast cancer symptoms can vary dramatically. Most people look for lumps. Swelling and changes to the skin can also be warning signs. Some types of breast cancer lack obvious symptoms.

You should see a physician if you encounter any of the following:

  • 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

Screening Guidelines

A mammogram is one of the easiest and most effective ways to do a preliminary screening for breast cancer. It essentially takes an x-ray of the breast.

As of May 2023, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women with average risk of breast cancer get a mammogram every year starting at age 40 and ending at 74.

Women with higher-than-average risk can start as early as 30, depending on what is recommended by their physician. The American College of Radiology recommends that ALL WOMEN, especially Black women and women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, be evaluated by 25 to see if they are at an elevated risk.

You are at a higher-than-average risk if:

  • You had genetic testing and found changes in certain genes that increase your lifetime risk of breast cancer.
  • A parent, sibling, or child had a genetic mutation increasing their breast cancer risk, but you haven’t been tested yet.
  • You have a family member who developed breast cancer before they turned 50.
  • You’ve been diagnosed with certain breast conditions like lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), atypical ductal hyperplasia, atypical lobular hyperplasia.

What You Can Do

No one can prevent breast cancer. You can help to minimize your risk, however, with healthy lifestyle habits:

  • Drink water regularly
  • Eat fresh and nutritious foods
  • Exercise regularly
  • Keep stress levels as low as possible
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get tested

Taking Charge of Your Health

Screenings are powerful tools in the fight against breast cancer. Your health matters, and early detection can be a lifesaver. Don't hesitate to discuss screening options with your health care provider. Your AltaMed physician may recommend additional screenings depending on your personal and family health histories.

Contact us for more information about the health screenings you need at (888) 499-9303.

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