In the United States, breast cancer ranks as the most common form of the disease among women, second only to skin cancer. Sadly, it’s responsible for one in every three new female cancer diagnoses, resulting in nearly 42,000 deaths each year.
As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, it’s crucial to highlight the significance of proactive health care. Let’s discuss the importance of breast screening and the benefits, limitations, and potential risks of a mammogram (X-ray of the breast).
The importance of breast screening
Breast health is a critical component of overall well-being, and one of the most effective ways to safeguard it is through regular exams.
These routine check-ups–often including mammograms–play a pivotal role in the early detection of breast cancer and other breast-related health issues.
Here are four reasons why scheduling a yearly breast exam should be at the forefront of your healthcare priorities–particularly for women aged 40 and above, or those with a family history of breast cancer.
Early detection saves lives: Early detection is crucial when it comes to breast cancer. In the U.S., the 5-year survival rate for all types and stages of breast cancer is a reassuring 91%. But when it’s localized (early-stage diagnosis), that rate shoots up to an impressive 99%.
So, regular breast exams are your front-line defense. They can identify things like lumps, changes in breast tissue, or suspicious growths long before other symptoms arise.
Finding breast cancer early also means less aggressive treatments, better odds of a full recovery, and a higher quality of life.
Monitoring changes over time is important: Yearly breast exams provide a baseline for monitoring changes in breast tissue over time.
Even if you and your healthcare provider detect no issues initially, having consistent records of breast health is invaluable. It allows your healthcare provider to identify subtle changes or patterns that might signal the need for further evaluation.
Tailored risk assessment: Women’s risk factors for breast cancer can vary widely. Family history and lifestyle factors all contribute to individual risk levels.
Yearly breast exams allow your healthcare provider to tailor his or her recommendations based on your unique risk profile.
Peace of mind: Routine breast exams provide peace of mind, reducing anxiety about potential health concerns. Knowing that you’re proactively monitoring your breast health can alleviate the uncertainty and fear that can come with the possibility of breast-related issues.
In 2020, breast cancer screenings dropped by 29% compared to 2019. A recent study suggests that the use of breast imaging services, including mammography, may still be at only 85.3% of pre-2020 levels.
Experts caution that many asymptomatic women may continue to underutilize screening, leading to advanced cancer growth. So make sure you get your exam this year to protect your health.
Who should get an annual breast exam?
Here are the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer screening guidelines:
- Women over 40: Consider annual mammograms, potentially earlier with a family history.
- Women aged 45-54: Aim for yearly mammograms.
- Women 55 and older: Continue with yearly screening, or switch to every 2 years, depending on your preference and risk profile.
If you’re under 40 with a family history, talk to your healthcare provider about starting self-exams at home as well as yearly clinical screenings. It’s crucial to prioritize your breast health–no matter your age.
Are mammograms safe?
There is some debate in the scientific community over the safety of mammograms–partly due to the radiation exposure associated with them.
But the radiation dose of a mammogram of both breasts is roughly equivalent to what we naturally absorb from our surroundings over about seven weeks. This level of radiation exposure is deemed very minimal.
Mammography is also rigorously regulated by the FDA and other governing bodies like the American College of Radiology. As long as the facility you visit is certified by these regulatory agencies, yearly mammograms are safe.
Limitations and risks of a mammogram
Mammograms are our most effective breast cancer screening tool, but they do have limitations. They aren’t 100% accurate and can sometimes miss cancers or raise concerns when there are none.
Women with dense breasts are more likely to receive false-negative results, which might provide a false sense of security. This is why it’s crucial to consult your doctor if you have new breast symptoms, even if your most recent screening was normal. Additional tests, such as diagnostic (more detailed) mammograms or breast ultrasounds, may be necessary to investigate specific areas.
False-positive mammograms are also possible, and can lead to anxiety and additional–often costly–tests, as well as unnecessary cancer treatments. But fortunately, false positives are estimated to be relatively rare–occurring just 1-10% of the time.
They’re also more of a concern for your first mammogram, or when past mammograms aren’t available for comparison. Having previous screenings reduces the risk of false positives by about half.
Despite these limitations, the benefits of regular mammograms typically outweigh the risks. They’ve been shown to reduce breast cancer mortality by about 40%, with the potential for less extensive treatment when cancer is detected early.
This statistic demonstrates the importance of a mammogram, as its benefits greatly outweigh its risks.
Schedule your annual breast exam before the year ends
The importance of breast screening cannot be overstated. It’s not just a medical recommendation, but a proactive step towards better well-being and longevity–and a vital part of every woman’s healthcare regimen.
So don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Schedule your yearly exam and start prioritizing your breast health today.