When it comes to important health screenings, the fear of the unknown prevents many from picking up the phone and booking an appointment. A mammogram – the screening test for breast cancer – can help find breast cancer early when it’s easiest to treat.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time for doctors and nurses to speak to women about the importance of getting screened.
So, when should a woman get a mammogram?
No simple answer
There is no simple answer to that question, according to Dr. Holly Mason, Section Chief, Breast Surgery, Division of Surgical Oncology at Baystate Medical Center.
“The benefits of screening are greatest for those women who are most likely to develop breast cancer and for whom early treatment is more effective in treating the disease. There is a lack of consensus among the leading health care organizations as to when to begin screening for the average risk patient,” said Dr. Mason.
“What is recommended today is that women have an honest discussion with their physician about when their screening should begin. Your physician will make a recommendation for you based on your risk factors, including any family or personal history,” she added.
Is mammography painful?
Some women also worry about the pain a mammography may cause them.
While it is relatively painless, some women may feel discomfort during the procedure as the breasts are compressed between the clear plastic paddles during imaging. Discomfort may also result from the size of a woman's breasts and where she is in her menstrual cycle.
In addition to conventional 2D mammography, which has long been the standard, newer 3D mammography, also referred to as digital breast tomosynthesis, has become a new option to consider.
While 2D mammograms take two images of the breast, 3D mammograms take multiple images or "slices" of the breast from many different angles to create a three-dimensional picture of the breast. The "slices" can reduce images with overlapping breast tissue and give doctors a clearer image of the breast tissue.
“Using 3D mammography can make it easier for doctors to catch breast cancer early and reduce the chances of being called back for additional imaging. However, not all insurance plans cover 3D mammography at this time,” said Dr. Mason.
There are a myriad of risk factors for breast cancer beyond personal and family history, including: age, genetic predisposition, menstrual history, high breast density, not having children, race and ethnicity, and estrogen hormone replacement therapy after menopause. Lifestyle also plays a role including the heavy use of alcohol, not being physically active, unhealthy food choices, and obesity.
Breast cancer signs and symptoms
“Given the fact that screening mammography often detects a cancer when it is very small, most women do not have any symptoms at the time of their cancer diagnosis,” said Dr. Mason. Still, women should monitor their health and pay attention to the following signs and symptoms.
Possible signs and symptoms of breast cancer that could indicate a need for evaluation by a doctor include:
- a new lump in the breast or underarm
- irritation or dimpling of breast skin
- redness or flat skin in the nipple area of the breast
- pulling in of the nipple
- nipple discharge other than breast milk (spontaneous, not occurring with self-examination) including blood
- any change in the size or the shape of your breast
Reducing your cancer risk
While you cannot prevent breast cancer from occurring, doctors recommend you can reduce your chances for all cancers by living a healthy lifestyle by eating healthy, staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting your alcohol intake.
To make an appointment
After talking with your health care provider about screening, you can request a mammogram appointment online or call 413-794-8874. We offer mammography at locations across western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut.