What You Should Know Before Scheduling Your Annual Mammogram

mammogram screening

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These days, it seems like everyone we come across has been inflicted with breast cancer in some way, shape or form, be it firsthand, a family member, close friend or an acquaintance. As stark as this seems, it’s in line with the statistics. On average, 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12.4 percent) will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime, according to Breastcancer.org. That’s why it’s so important to be as proactive as possible when it comes to prevention, and the best way to prevent breast cancer is to stay on top of your regular mammogram screening.

This screening, which involves taking X-ray images of the breast, can allow physicians to identify subtle changes in the breast that could detect early signs of cancer. “All women with an average risk for breast cancer should start screening at the age of 40 and be screened annually,” explains Janie Grumley, MD, breast surgical oncologist and Director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Center and Associate Professor of Surgery at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA. Women who are at an increased risk for breast cancer, due to a history of family members who’ve had the disease, should begin mammogram screenings at age 30.

No matter your age, here’s what doctors want you to know before you schedule your annual mammogram screening.

You should have your mammogram at an ACR facility

“An accredited facility has the highest standards for the performance of the mammogram test,” explains German Fraynd, FACS. “ACR accreditation is recognized as the gold standard for medical imaging and ensures that patients will receive the highest levels of image quality.” Check to see if your facility is accredited, and if not, request to be sent to one that is.

There are different types of mammogram screenings

Women with dense breast tissue benefit from tomosynthesis, or 3D mammograms, explains Dr. Grumley, as standard mammograms can miss small cancers in women with denser tissue. In women with dense breast tissue, the tissue shows up the same color as cancer: white. This makes it challenging for doctors to differentiate the dense tissue with early signs of cancer. “Tomosynthesis mammogram takes more images with very minimal added radiation and allows for better detection of small cancers in women with dense breast tissue,” says Dr. Grumley. “Women with low density mammogram will not get any added benefit from doing the extra images in 3D or tomosynthesis mammogram, so it is not worth the small amount of additional radiation.”

mammogram screening

Radiation from a mammogram is minimal

Still, there is very little radiation associated with mammograms. “The benefits of screening mammogram , which include early cancer detection, improved survival, and minimizing treatment, far outweigh the tiny risk of radiation exposure,” says Dr. Grumley.

The screening involves taking multiple images

When you get your screening, you receive four images (two images of each breast, unless the breast is very large they may need to take more), says Dr. Fraynd. “If you have breast implants, it means you will have to have a regular screening with the implants and then additional views of the breast with implants displaced posteriorly so you can compress the breast tissue and get a good read.”

You will receive a “Patient Notification Letter” after the test

This document, which typically comes a week or two after the test, will state whether or not the mammogram is normal or requires additional testing, explains Richard Reitherman, MD, PhD, medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “It is critical that you pay attention to the contents of this letter as, in most states, it will also communicate whether or not you have dense breast tissue.”

It’s not a perfect test

“A mammogram can show dense areas, calcification, and changes in appearance of the breast architecture,” explains Dr. Grumley. “When those changes are seen, they need to be investigated.” This does not mean that these changes signify cancer. A call back for more imaging is merely a way to gather more information, she says.

When in doubt, talk to a breast specialist

If you have any concerns about your mammograms or risk of breast cancer, Dr. Grumley recommends seeing a breast specialist. These people are specially trained to better help assess true risk, provide good education, and alleviate anxiety and concerns about mammogram screenings.