Mammograms, an important health screening for women, consist of a low-dose X-ray of the breast that looks for abnormalities and changes in a woman’s breasts that may be indicators of breast cancer. Women are encouraged to get mammograms because they may be able to detect breast abnormalities that cannot be felt by a breast self-exam.
What are the different types of mammograms?
There are two different types of mammograms for women: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms.
Screening mammograms: Routine screenings of a woman’s breasts when she has no symptoms of breast cancer. Screening mammograms can detect lumps, tumors and micro-calcifications (tiny deposits of calcium in the breast), which may not be felt during a self-exam or clinical exam. A screening mammogram typically consists of two X-rays of each breast.
Diagnostic mammograms: Used to check for breast cancer after a lump or breast abnormality has been felt or the patient is experiencing other symptoms of breast cancer, such as pain, thickened skin, nipple discharge or change in breast size or shape. Diagnostic mammograms involve more X-rays of each breast or more detailed images, which can help the doctor make an accurate diagnosis.
Who should get a mammogram?
The standard recommendation is that women who are 40 and older receive annual mammograms and women in their 20s and 30s receive clinical breast exams every three years, but this is not always best. “Screening mammography should be individualized to the risk of the woman—40 and female is no longer an acceptable risk assessment,” says Dr. Peter D. Beitsch, MD FACS.
Depending on individual health and risk factors, mammograms may be recommended at an earlier age for certain women. Women who are at high risk for breast cancer may need to get a mammogram every year, regardless of age. Women who may be at high risk include:
• Women who have a 20 to 25 percent or higher lifetime risk of breast cancer based on risk assessment tools (including family history of breast cancer).
• Women who are known to have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.
• Women who have not had genetic testing but who have a close relative (parent, sibling, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.
• Women who have had radiation therapy to the chest between the ages of 10 and 30.
• Women who have other health conditions or have a first-degree relative with one of one of these conditions: Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome.
If your individualized risk assessment is found to be low and you are over 40, annual mammograms are acceptable. All women should perform regular breast self-exams and have clinical breast exams as part of their routine physical exams. If abnormalities are felt during a self-exam or clinical breast exam, a woman’s physician may recommend a mammogram.
Early detection of breast cancer through mammograms and other testing can help reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer by 25-30 percent or more. A mammogram is a quick procedure (usually about 20 minutes), and most women experience minimal discomfort. Some women are concerned about radiation exposure from mammograms, but mammograms have been proven safe and radiation exposure is extremely minimal.
If you have questions about your breast health or have not had a routine clinical breast exam (or mammogram if you are over 40), talk to your physician today. A mammogram may save your live.