Mammograms are arguably the best way to detect early breast cancer. In fact, screenings helped prevent nearly 380,000 breast cancer deaths between 1989 to 2017. This makes getting a quick screening key to early detection and key to better long-term health. Here’s a brief guide for knowing how often you should get a mammogram, how to know your risk level, and what to look for when examining your breasts yourself.
At what age should I get a mammogram?
The American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 45 and 54 should get a mammogram once a year but can begin as early as 40 with a doctor’s approval. Women over 55, however, should get one every other year.
It’s important to remember though that these recommendations are only for women with an average risk of breast cancer. Women with a higher risk may need to begin screenings sooner and may need to get them more frequently.
How does the technology work?
Standard mammogram technology uses 2D screening. While this was instrumental in early detection, it also resulted in a high number of false positives. Digital 3D screening is more advanced and greatly reduces false-positive results.
The procedures are very similar, but 3D screening, which The Woman’s Clinic uses, provides a comprehensive view of the breast. This technology allows for more effective detection of abnormal tissue growth.
How do I know if I’m at high or low risk?
A few factors will affect your risk level, and you should discuss these with your doctor at your annual checkups. Here’s what doctors consider to be indicators of risk level:
- Having a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, who had breast cancer
- Having a first-degree relative who has not had breast cancer but has a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
- Having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
- Having undergone radiation therapy to the chest between 10-30 years of age
- Having certain syndromes that increase the risk and occurrence of noncancerous tumors
- Having dense breasts (which can be seen on a mammogram)
- Having a personal history of breast cancer and/or tumor growth
Your doctor can order tests to identify related gene mutations or syndromes. If you do have one of more of these risks, consider getting a mammogram every year starting at age 30.
And while these are generally accepted guidelines, many doctors have found that a yearly mammogram isn’t always necessary for average risk women only. Across the globe, doctors favor designing a screening plan based on each person rather than on age. Hormone levels and menopause can be a more effective indicator of when to begin yearly mammograms than age.
Moreover, simply starting menopause at 40 doesn’t mean that every 40-year-old woman will. Because these factors vary from person to person, it’s important to make appointments with your doctor so that they can monitor and track your risk level.
What should I look for in a breast self-exam?
Between mammography appointments and your yearly physical, it’s important to do regular breast exams on yourself, because these can help detect cancer early. Self-exams can be done at home in front of a mirror or lying down and should be done about once a month, perhaps a few days after your period.
The first step to checking is the easiest, because it’s as simple as looking in a mirror. Before you begin this visual test, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re looking for when you do it.
First, examine the breasts and armpits for any changes in shape, color, size, or inflammation. If there are puckering or dimples that weren’t there before, tell your doctor about it right away. Inflammation or swelling of a breast will often cause a visible difference between the breasts. That being said, most women don’t have perfectly symmetrical breasts, so you’ll want to look specifically for any abnormal differences.
1. The visual test
Stand in front of your mirror, and examine your breasts with your hands on your hips. Look for any abnormalities using the criteria discussed above. Next, raise your arms above your head. Look again for any changes, especially around your armpits.
Once you’ve completed this part of the self-exam, inspect your nipple area. Look for redness, swelling, a nipple that has moved slightly, or even if your nipple has started to push inward rather than outward. Any discharge from the nipples (when you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding) should also be discussed with your doctor.
2. The touch test
You can do this part of the test while lying on your back. Put your right hand under your head, and use your other hand to exam your right breast. Put your fingers together, and firmly push on your breast in a circular motion. This motion should be small, about one inch in diameter. Move your fingers to a nearby area of your breast and armpit, and repeat the circular motion.
Keep doing this until you’ve examined your entire breast area, including above, next to, and under your breast and nipple. Once you’ve completed the right side, put your left hand under your head, and use your right hand to examine your left breast, following the above steps.
For more information
1 of 8 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, which is why early detection is so important. If you’d like to talk with someone about your breast cancer risk factors or schedule an appointment with an OB-GYN in Little Rock, The Woman’s Clinic is here to help.
Contact us today at (501) 664-4131, or fill out our online form, and we’ll call you! We’re here to support you on your wellness journey by providing you with complete, high-quality care both in-person and online. Schedule your digital mammogram today!