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Get Checked for Breast Cancer (Mammogram)

By Staff | August 27, 2018 | Rally Health


Why it's important: Regular screening can help catch breast cancer early.

Who needs it: Women 50 to 74 need a mammogram every two years, unless your doctor advises getting one earlier, more often, or past age 74.

Good to Know: Some women may choose to start screening earlier or more often.      

What are mammograms?

A mammogram is a fancy word for an X-ray of the breast. Screening mammograms are used to look for breast cancer. 

Why are they important?

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight US women will develop it over her lifetime. Mammograms can help catch breast cancer at an early stage — before it grows large enough to be felt, or spreads to other parts of the body. Early detection may improve the odds of long-term survival.

 Who needs them?        

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, women at average risk of breast cancer need mammograms only every two years from ages 50 to 74. Women under 50 should talk with their doctors and decide when they should start getting screened. (For example, women at higher risk may need to start at a younger age or be screened more often.)

Doctors and medical organizations don't all agree on when to start screening, or how often. The latest American Cancer Society guidelines for average-risk women recommend once-a-year mammograms from ages 45 to 54, switching to every two years at 55. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you.

If you ever feel a lump in your breast or notice something unusual, you should have it checked out by your doctor — no matter how old you are or when you had your last mammogram.

What to expect

At your screening mammogram appointment, you'll take off everything above your waist and wear a simple robe. For the imaging, you'll step up to the X-ray machine and the technician will adjust it for you.

Now for the not so fun part. You'll put one breast onto a flat plate, and it'll be flattened by another clear plastic plate (this is to get a better picture). You'll do this at least twice for each breast. This may feel uncomfortable, even painful, but lasts only a few seconds.

If you're having a diagnostic mammogram (to check out a lump, for example), you may need to have more images taken, but the basic process is the same.

 At some facilities, there is a radiologist in the office who will review the films right away to make sure the pictures are clear. Once you're done, ask your doctor how and when you will get your results. 

Good to know   

The National Cancer Institute says it’s important to balance the benefits of screening against the potential harms. Screening more often can find something suspicious earlier, but can also result in more false-positives. (These are results that seem like cancer at first, but with extra testing turn out not to be cancer.) You and your doctor should discuss and decide the timing that's best for you.

As with any other health service, the cost can vary. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers generally must cover certain preventive care services, including screening mammograms, at no cost to you. 

 Selected references

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Breast Cancer Screening. Last updated October, 2018. 

Mayo Clinic. Mammogram. Last updated March 2018.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Breast Cancer: Screening. Last updated January 2016.

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