Most of us know someone who has been affected by breast cancer. Over a quarter of a million mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and friends are expected to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2018. It is a staggering number and a frightening disease. So what can we do to protect ourselves?
While age 40 has been the traditionally recommended age to start an annual mammogram screening, and is still the recommended age of the American Cancer Society, some doctors now think it’s okay to wait until age 45 or 50 to start screening. This depends upon your personal health and medical history though, so make sure to discuss with your doctor the appropriate age for you to start mammogram screenings. Women with risk factors for breast cancer may start even earlier than age 40. Risk factors can include previous instances of tumors or masses in the breast or a family history of breast cancer.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that is used to detect masses that may be cancerous tumors. Mammograms have been recommended by the American Cancer Society as an annual breast cancer screening tool since 1976. But are mammograms safe? Can they catch all types of breast cancer? And why do they have to be so painful?
We are here to break down some important mammogram myths so women can empower themselves with the knowledge they need to make the best choices for their health and breast cancer screenings.
Mammogram Myth #1: Mammograms Work for Everyone
The truth is that mammograms work best for women who have mostly fatty breast tissue. Fatty breast tissue appears black on a mammogram and cancer appears white. So it is easy for a radiologist to spot the cancer as it stands out on the mammogram. It is much more difficult to detect cancer in dense breast tissue on a mammogram. Dense breast tissue appears white on a mammogram, just like cancer. So it is extremely difficult for a doctor to spot a white cancerous tumor hidden amongst a forest of white breast tissue. Women with dense breast tissue should talk with their doctors about additional breast cancer screening methods like ultrasounds.
Mammogram Myth #2: Mammograms Are Always Accurate
Unfortunately, mammograms are not always accurate and they cannot differentiate between different types of cancer. As a result, false positives and false negatives are a serious concern with mammograms. According to the National Cancer Institute, 20% of mammograms miss cancers that are already there at the time of the screening. In addition, more than 50% of women who get a mammogram every year for 10 years in the U.S. will receive a false-positive result. That is an incredibly large number of women who then go through painful, invasive, and expensive procedures like biopsies and sometimes even mastectomies when they never actually had cancer or when they had a noninvasive cancer that was never going to spread beyond its location in the breast.
Mammogram Myth #3: Mammograms Are Safe
Most women have heard at least one joke about prepping for your mammogram by practicing squeezing or squishing your breasts. But the not-so-funny truth is that mammograms are a painful procedure! In order to get the best x-ray image, each breast has to be pressed between two plates to flatten it as much as possible. This is not only a painful procedure but a dangerous one. Mammograms may be especially painful for women with any type of scar tissue in their breasts. There is risk of trauma such as bruising, and women who have had breast implants are at a higher risk of physical trauma. In rare cases, breast implants may rupture during a mammogram as they have to be pushed back against the chest in order to get a clear image of the breast tissue surrounding the implants. In addition to all the pressing and squeezing, mammograms require radiation to work. While it is a low dose of radiation, it makes this an unsafe procedure for pregnant or nursing women. The physical discomforts and risks of mammograms prompt some women to skip mammograms, getting them less frequently than recommended, or stopping them altogether. This puts these women at a greater risk of late detection of breast cancer, which can be life-threatening.
Mammogram Myth #4: Mammograms Are the Only Breast Cancer Screening Tool
After reading through our top three myths, you’re probably wondering what on earth you’re supposed to do, especially if you have dense breast tissue or breast implants. Great news! There are other breast cancer screening tools available. While none of them are recommended yet as a mammogram replacement, you can use them in conjunction with an annual mammogram to ensure you are getting a clear picture of your breast health. These tools can help determine whether you received a false result from your mammogram and best of all, they’re painless!
If you have concerns surrounding mammograms or would like to find additional screening tools in your area, talk with your doctor. If he or she isn’t familiar with some of these alternative screening tools, talk them up! Encourage your doctor to investigate these screening tools and share them with other patients. The more awareness you can raise around screening methods like the Automated Whole Breast Ultrasound means the faster it will become a more mainstream method of breast cancer screening. That could mean no more painful, inconclusive mammograms in the future!