Your breast cancer screening questions answered

Hey ladies! And you gents too! Everyone is affected by breast cancer, either personally or by a family member or friend. Fortunately, we live in a time where breast cancer can be detected earlier and when detected, can be treated and cured. The key is early detection.

There seems to be copious amount of information on the Internet: some good, some not so good. Let’s go through a few of these common misconceptions, and more importantly, guidelines and recommendations.

“My breasts are too small. I’ve got nothing there for cancer to grow in.”

Whether you think your breasts are small or large or one small and one large or shaped like a Christmas tree, you still have breast tissue. And any breast tissue puts you at risk for cancer. Even men get breast cancer. So don’t worry what shape or size your breasts are, those mammogram techs will find a way to flatten them into pancakes for your screening.

“After my mammogram, I received a letter saying my breasts are dense. What does that mean?”

Breasts are made up of glandular tissue (which produces breast milk), connective tissue (to support the breasts) and fatty tissue. The ratio of these three components determine whether you have dense breasts or not. Fifty percent of women over 40 have dense breasts — that means, 1 in 2 women.

You can’t actually feel if you have dense breasts. This a radiology term to describe your mammogram results. Dense breasts doesn’t mean that you have cancer. But because of how dense breasts look on a mammogram, it can make it more difficult to read them.

In 2015, Michigan (other states have different reporting requirements) passed a law that mandated mammogram facilities to inform patients if their breasts are dense on mammograms. Unfortunately, the letters patients received alarmed them, unsure of what it meant for them.

For a better understanding of dense breasts and screening options, look here: dense breasts.

“When do I get a mammogram? Can’t I skip a year?”

Here are the latest recommendations from the American Cancer Society. The guideline applies to women at average risk of breast cancer.

  • Women from ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so.
  • Women from ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women aged 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years, or can continue yearly screening. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live ten more years or longer.

If you look closely, these are guidelines for a woman of “average” risk. Average is a vague term, so it is important to discuss these recommendations with your healthcare provider, determine if you have any risk factors, and decide what makes sense for you.

“No one in my family has breast cancer, so I don’t need a mammogram.”

Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are familial (someone in your family has it). That means 90 to 95 percent are spontaneous, with NO family history. So don’t let your lack of family history of cancer lull you into thinking you have no risk and no reason for screening.

In the end, talk to your healthcare provider. Make an informed decision about what is best for you about when and what type of mammogram you need.

Andrea Eisenberg is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at Secret Life of an OB/GYN.

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