October is the month of falling leaves, hues of yellow and orange, and pink. As healthcare organizations throughout the nation promote breast cancer awareness and scheduling that mammogram appointment, it is important for patients to be in the know.
What is a Mammogram?
Mammograms are x-rays of the breast to screen for breast cancer. While there is debate on how often a woman should have a mammogram performed, it is generally accepted that women between the ages of 40 – 70 years old receive a mammogram at least every two years. These are the ages in which the technology is the most accurate. While younger women can have mammograms, there is a greater chance for a false positive resulting in unnecessary healthcare costs to the patient.
Why are Mammograms Done?
Breast cancer is most easily treated and cured when it is found in an early stage. While mammograms cannot prevent or reduce a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer, they can find tumors before they can be felt by a breast self-exam or a physician. By detecting cancer before it shows symptoms, mammograms increase a woman’s chances for survival.
What is a Digital Mammogram?
Digital mammograms are performed the same way that traditional mammograms are performed, however the resulting image is stored digitally rather than on film. This lends to easier transfer between healthcare providers (hence quicker and easier second opinions), more in-depth electronic analysis of the image, and better manipulation for clarity and visibility. In addition, digital mammograms often take more views of the breast tissue but use about 25% less radiation.
How is a Mammogram Done?
A mammogram is performed by a radiology technologist or mammogram technologist, and the results will be sent to a radiologist for reading.
You will be asked to wear loose fitting clothing and remove any jewelry. You may also be advised not to have a mammogram if you are pregnant or nursing, have breast implants, or previously had a breast biopsy. In these situations there is greater chance for unclear results and/or risk to an unborn child due to the radiation. It is strongly recommended that you inform your ordering physician as well as the radiology technologist of any of these circumstances prior to having your mammogram.
You will also be asked to bring the results of your most recent previous mammogram, if you have had one in the past. This allows the radiologist to compare your current results with a prior mammogram if any areas of question arise.
The mammogram itself takes approximately 15 minutes, though it is recommended that a full hour be set aside for your appointment. During the mammogram, you will typically stand while your breasts are placed, one at a time, between two flat plates that contain the x-ray film. The plates are pressed together to flatten the breast tissue. While this usually feels uncomfortable, it is rarely extremely painful. Communicate with the technician ahead of time if you are more susceptible to pain or if your skin is highly sensitive or fragile.
In many cases, early detection saves lives. However, mammograms have risks as well as benefits, and it is up to each patient and their provider to decide the best course of action following a mammogram.
False-positive: mammograms can sometimes result in false-positives. This more often occurs in younger women.
False-negative: mammograms sometimes miss finding cancer even if it is there. This is more likely to occur in women with denser breast tissue.
In some cases, by the time cancer is detected, it may have progressed and/or spread to other parts of the body. Some cancers are more aggressive than others, and there is no guarantee that finding the cancer early will result in life-saving treatment.
The bottom line is that if cancer exists, the odds of beating it are increased with early detection. Talk to your healthcare provider today and find out if a mammogram is right for you. Then, know your insurance plan’s mammogram coverage if you have one, and be aware of local promotions and resources for discounted breast cancer screenings.