In recent years, there has been some controversy over when to start and how often women should have regular mammograms. Knowing your body and family history are important to making the right decision for your health.
What Is a Mammogram?
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast and is used to screen for breast cancer. Mammograms are also used as a diagnostic tool. During a mammogram, the breast is compressed between two flat surfaces on the machine. A black and white x-ray image of the breast is displayed on the computer and examined by a doctor who looks for signs of cancer.
When to Begin Screening
Doctors and medical experts disagree on what age mammography screenings should begin. Talk to your doctor about your risks, family history, and preferences to make the best decision for you.
For women of average risk, the American Cancer Society recommends mammography screenings starting at age 40 and every one or two years after. The U.S. Preventative Task Force recommends waiting until age 50 and screening every two years after. The USPTF does recommend consulting with your doctor between the ages of 40-49 and making informed decisions.
For women of high risk, screenings may be beneficial even before age 40. Talk to your doctor about the risks and your family history. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be done in combination with a mammogram.
If a woman finds a lump on her breast, it's important to have a mammogram no matter what her age. Contact your doctor immediately.
Why Doesn't Everyone Agree?
Everyone agrees that mammography is a key step to detecting cancers and can save lives. Like most procedures, there is also a risk involved with mammograms.
Since a mammogram is a type of x-ray, a woman is being exposed to radiation each time she has the screening. This radiation exposure builds over time and could increase the risk of radiation-induced cancers forming.
Younger women have denser breasts which often look white on a mammogram. Cancer also shows up as white on a mammogram. These younger women with denser breasts could get false positive results from mammography screenings. For younger women, an MRI is a safer option, but it's also more expensive and may not be covered by insurance. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the best choice for you. Click here to see a chart detailing the results of 1,000 women undergoing a mammogram screening.
In 2011, Dr. John Schousboe published a study regarding the cost-effectiveness and health benefits of annual mammograms. For those women with high risk and higher breast density, biennial mammograms starting at age 40 were the best choice. For women of average risk and low-normal breast density, biennial mammograms starting at age 50 would be beneficial.
What is the Best Choice For Me?
Use these guidelines to help you take action and make the best decision for your health.
- Know your risk. Look at your family history and talk to your doctor about your risk.
- Get Screened. Once you know your risk, talk to your doctor about which screenings are right for you.
- Know what is normal for you. Contact your doctor immediately if you notice any changes in your breast.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices. Breastfeeding, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise all decrease your chances of developing breast cancer.