October is breast cancer awareness month, and we’re doing our part to help bring attention to this very important subject. Below, you’ll find some of the most common questions that women have about mammograms, which is a screening tool that is used for early detection of breast cancer.

What Is A Mammogram?
A mammogram is a special kind of X-ray of the breasts. Mammograms are used to help find breast cancer early, when it may still be curable. Mammograms are recommended for women older than 40, even if they have no signs of breast cancer.

Nurse With Patient About To Have A Mammogram What About Younger Women?

Mammograms are also recommended for younger women who have symptoms of breast cancer or who have a high risk of breast cancer.

What Time of the Month Should I Schedule My Mammogram?

Women who are menstruating should schedule their mammograms shortly after the last day of their period. Breasts are less tender during this time.

What Age Should I Start Having Mammograms and How Frequently Should They be Done?

It is important to have a baseline mammogram done between the ages of 35-39. Following your baseline screening, you should begin having a screening mammogram starting at age 40 and then each year after that. If you are a woman between the ages of 20 and 40 you should be doing your own breast self exams each month. A clinical breast exam by a physician who is skilled in doing breast exams should be done once a year. Your own history and any special circumstances may mean that you would need to start having mammograms earlier, so it is always a good idea to consult with your own personal physician about when to begin having mammograms.

But I don’t have any family history of breast cancer? Is it is still necessary for me to have a mammogram each year?

Absolutely. Did you know that although family history does play a role—only 15% of all woman who are diagnosed with breast cancer had a family history. This means that 85% of all women diagnosed with breast cancer DO NOT have a previous family history of the disease.

Do I Need A Doctor’s Order to Get a Mammogram?

There are many facilities which offer routine yearly mammograms without needing a physicians order. You can call the contact number for mammogram facilities in your area to ask about their specific policies. If you do have a breast issue you are concerned about it is important to visit your physician first.

How Do I Prepare for a Mammogram?

It is important on the day of your mammogram to shower but do not put on any lotions, powder or deodorant around or under your arms or on your breasts. This will assure that there aren’t chemicals on your skin which could potentially disrupt your mammogram pictures.  Wear clothing that is easy to remove your top—so a two piece outfit is usually easiest. Write down a list of any hormone medications that you are taking. Both the names and dosages of all of them, and have previous films available if you have had mammograms before and are using another facility, along with any dates/places and results of any breast biopsies you may have previously had done.

What If I Am Concerned about a Breast Lump and My Doctor Says I Don’t Need a Mammogram?

If you are ever concerned about a breast lump and have been told by a physician that you don’t need a mammogram it may be in your best interest to get a 2nd opinion. Although most physicians are knowledgeable, mistakes do happen and there have been cases where women have not been referred on for screening when they should have been. If cost is an issue please seek out the many resources available to you in your area. A good first step is to call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 (or 1-866-228-4327 for TTY).  They are available 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Why Are Mammograms Important?

A mammogram can save your life. Mammograms can show tumors that may be cancer long before they can be felt. Treating tumors when they are still small makes curing cancer easier. You usually need to go to a special clinic to get a mammogram. The FDA inspects and certifies all places in the United States where mammograms are done. Look for the FDA certificate at the clinic where you go for your mammogram. FDA certification means the clinic’s equipment and staff meet federal standards and that your mammogram will be safe and of high quality.

Who Gets Breast Cancer?

Any woman can get breast cancer. Each year, about 207,090 women in the United States get breast cancer and about 39,840 die from it according to the 2010 statistics available from the American Cancer Society.  Except for non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women.

You may be more likely to get breast cancer if you:

  • Have a mother or sister who had breast cancer.
  • Have inherited certain genes. These genes are more common in people with Jewish ancestors from Eastern Europe.
  • Had your first menstrual period before you were 12.
  • Stopped having periods after you were 50.
  • Never had children or had your first child when you were over 30.
  • Have had radiation treatments to your chest area.
  • Also, the older you are, the more likely you are to get breast cancer. Remember, though, that one out of four women who get breast cancer don’t have any of these risks.

Examinations Are Important

Three kinds of exams can help detect breast cancer:

  • Mammography
  • Doctor’s exam
  • Self-exam

It’s important to have a doctor examine your breasts at least once a year. It’s also important to examine your breasts yourself once a month. Some women find it’s easiest to do this at the same time each month, for example, when your menstrual period ends.

What If My Mammogram Shows A Problem?

Mammograms can show if the inside of the breast looks normal. But a mammogram can’t show for sure if you have breast cancer. If you have a mammogram that doesn’t look normal, your doctor will probably suggest a biopsy-a tissue sample of the breast. A biopsy is minor surgery. The breast tissue from a biopsy is tested in a laboratory to see if it’s cancerous.

Remember, just because a problem area shows up on your mammogram that doesn’t mean you have cancer. Cancer can be diagnosed only by a lab test on tissue from your breast.

How Breast Cancer Is Treated

There are a number of treatments for breast cancer. The treatment depends on the type of tumor, if the cancer has spread, and other facts you and your doctor will discuss. Some treatments are:

Lumpectomy: Surgery that removes the lump or tumor and a small amount of breast tissue around it, leaving the rest of the breast. A lumpectomy is usually the preferred treatment when cancer hasn’t spread outside the breast.

Total Mastectomy: Surgery that removes the entire breast and usually the adjoining lymph nodes. This may be necessary when there is more than one cancer in the breast, or when a single cancer is large when compared to the breast. Breast reconstruction is usually available to women who have had a breast removed. If you have a breast removed, you may want to talk with your doctor about various types of surgical breast reconstruction and decide if reconstruction is right for you.

Radiation Therapy: Radiation from special equipment is aimed at the tumor to kill cancer cells and shrink the tumor.

Treatment With One Or More Drugs: Radiation and drug treatment are often given after surgery. Drugs may include chemotherapy agents or hormonal medications as an example.

The following information was obtained from the National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health. This organization has a wealth of information on the subject of mammograms and can be visited at http://www.cancer.gov.

Some statistics for you to consider:

  • The older a women is, the greater her chances of developing breast cancer.
  • It is estimated that 13.2% of women –one of of every eight, born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer some time in their lives.
  • Most breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50.

The following represents a woman’s chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer by age group.

  • 30 to 39 years old – 1 in 229
  • 40 to 49 years old – 1 in 68
  • 50 to 59 years old – 1 in 37
  • 60 to 69 years old – 1 in 26

The American College of Radiology (ACR) has established a uniform way for radiologists to report mammogram findings. This system is called the BI-RADS® which stands for Breast Imaging Reporting and Database System. It is broken down into the following categories. Each category defines the assessment and the corresponding follow-up.

Breast Imaging Reporting and Database System (BI-RADS)

Category Assessment Follow-up
0 Needs Additional Imaging Evaluation Additional Imagining Needed Before a Category Can Be Assigned
1 Negative Continue annual screening mammography (for women over age 40)
2 Benign (non cancerous finding) Continue annual screening mammography (for women over age 40)
3 Probably benign Receive a 6 month follow up mammogram
4 Suspicious abnormality May require biopsy
5 Highly Suggestive of malignancy (cancer) Requires biopsy
6 Known biopsy-proven malignancy (cancer) Biopsy confirms presence of cancer before treatment begins