Beaufort Memorial’s Living Well Blog brings health and wellness to Lowcountry living.

The Truth About Mammograms

Posted by Women's Health Team on Aug 23, 2016 1:19:00 PM

No matter how many “40 is the new 20” articles you read, there’s one aspect of turning 40 you can’t ignore. And that’s your first mammogram.

Whether you’ve already started these lifesaving screenings or not, it’s likely that you’ve heard a lot about them­—and have picked up some misinformation along the way.

Read on to test your mammography smarts.

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TRUE OR FALSE:

If I’m getting annual mammograms, I don’t need to worry about self-exams. 

False. “Although mammography is good, it’s far from perfect,” says Barbara Monsees, M.D., chair of the American College of Radiology Breast Imaging Commission. “It doesn’t find all breast cancers. If a woman were to develop a lump, she should bring it to the attention of her physician.” Experts say it’s less important to follow a specific set of instructions or techniques for a self-exam than to simply recognize what’s normal for you—and to be able to identify changes. “There is absolutely good reason for women to examine themselves on a monthly basis,” Monsees says. 

TRUE OR FALSE:

I should start my mammograms at 40. 

True (mostly). Although some guidelines suggest that women can wait until 50 to get screened, the American Cancer Society, the American College of Radiology and others are steadfast in recommending women start at an age determined by their risk for breast cancer. “Women shouldn’t confuse disagreement about guidelines with overall efficacy of screening,” Monsees says. “There is a lot of discussion, but the preponderance of scientific evidence says that mammography saves lives and it saves the most lives when you start annual screening at age 40.” Women at higher-than-average risk, however, may need to be screened even earlier. This includes women with a strong family history of breast cancer and those who have tested positive for the breast cancer gene mutation, among other risk factors. Your doctor can help determine whether you’re at high risk.

TRUE OR FALSE:

Repeated annual mammograms can cause cancer. 

False. “The simple answer is that it’s a small theoretical risk that pales in comparison to the natural risk of getting breast cancer.” Monsees says. The risk stems from the fact that mammography uses radiation, and radiation is known to cause cancer. “We don’t want to dismiss that,” says Marisa Weiss, M.D., founder and president of breastcancer.org. “But with modern-day mammography, the radiation exposure is really tiny. It ends up being less exposure than a person who flies [across] the country is exposed to.” In the end, Weiss and Monsees agree: The benefits of mammography far outweigh the risk.

TRUE OR FALSE:

If I have breast implants, I can’t get a mammogram.

False. “If you’ve had breast augmentation, you still have breast tissue” Weiss says. “And you still need a mammogram.” A mammogram’s X-rays can’t go through implants, so some manipulation of the breast is necessary to capture the best images. Weiss recommends going to an imaging center that offers digital mammography. Monsees adds that an experienced mammogram technician can be helpful in this situation.

TRUE OR FALSE:

Mammograms hurt.

False (mostly). “The reality is that no one wants to get a mammogram,” Weiss acknowledges. But while it might not be a pleasant experience you look forward to, it’s only a little uncomfortable—not painful, she says. Monsees describes the sensation as a pinch or squeeze. “And most of the time, any discomfort is mild and quick,” Weiss adds.

Beaufort Memorial Hospital is now offering the latest breakthrough in mammography at the Women’s Imaging Center.

Tomosynthesis, a 3-D X-ray, provides a clearer, more accurate view of the breast, improving breast cancer detection and reducing the number of false positives and the anxiety that comes with them. To make an appointment for tomosynthesis or a traditional screening mammogram, call the Women’s Imaging Center at 843-522-5015. 

Photo courtesy of Winter 2014 issue of Living Well.

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