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When Should I Start Getting Mammograms?

DrSugar: The 411 on Mammograms

DrSugar is in the house! This week she's explaining how mammograms work and why they're important.

This week on DrSugar, I'm going to discuss the hows, whys, and whens of mammograms. Inspired to research the topic given my positive family history of breast cancer in my grandmother, I wanted to share the information I found with FitSugar readers to help clear up any confusion you may all have on the matter.

The National Cancer Institute defines a mammogram as an X-ray picture of the breast. The actual procedure involves the breasts being compressed between two firm surfaces to spread out the breast tissue and then X-ray images are taken. There are two types of mammograms, screening and diagnostic. A screening mammogram is used to check for breast cancer in women with no signs or symptoms of the disease. Screening mammograms typically involve two X-ray pictures of each breast and can make it possible to detect tumors that cannot be felt. Diagnostic mammograms are obtained to check for breast cancer after a lump or other sign or symptom of disease has been found. These differ from the screening mammograms in that they take longer to perform because more X-rays are taken to obtain images of the breast from multiple different angles.

More information on mammograms after the break.

Screening mammograms are important for early detection of breast cancer. Early detection means that treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it has spread to other sites. The National Cancer Institute recommends that screening mammograms be done every one to two years in women age 40 and older. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you talk with your personal physician about your risk factors and the benefits and risks of screening, in order to determine when screening mammograms should start and how often to get them. The Mayo Clinic also states that if you are a woman with an average risk of breast cancer, that most professional groups (such as the American Cancer Society) recommend starting at age 40 with screening tests done every year or two.

The Mayo Clinic also reports that women with a higher risk of breast cancer may benefit by starting the screening mammograms before the age of 40. The University of Maryland Medical Center further recommends that women with a first-degree relative who had breast cancer (especially if they were diagnosed when premenopausal) should usually begin screening mammograms at five to 10 years earlier than the age of diagnosis of the family member. Women with a positive breast cancer gene (BRCA 1 or BRCA 2) should also begin mammography earlier, as should women who have a past history of receiving radiation to the chest between the ages of 10 to 30.

There are some pitfalls to mammograms, accuracy issues that can lead to false positive and false negative results. That being said, if cancer is found, the type of cancer found by the mammogram may not necessarily be curable. In young women, mammograms can be difficult to interpret as the breast tissue is more dense, which may make it more difficult to detect changes. Finally, screening mammograms can't detect all cancers, with the Mayo Clinic stating that mammograms can miss cancer in one in five women.

Hopefully this information will have inspired you to learn more about your family history and if it includes breast cancer. As always, I feel the best course of action is to be proactive and take the initiative to have a discussion with your personal physician about when to start with screening mammograms. I know that at my next physical examination, I will be discussing it with my physician to determine when will be the right time for me to start!

Have a question for DrSugar? You can send it to me via private message here, and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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