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Mammograms: What Are They and Why Are They Important?

Annual mammograms have the potential to detect cancer or other breast problems quickly

mammogram calendar, All About Women Conditions & Treatment Article

As you’re approaching your 40s, you may feel apprehensive about scheduling your first mammogram. It may be one of many firsts as you begin to move into “middle age,” but this particular first should put your mind at ease.

The American Medical Association (AMA), American Cancer Society (ACS), American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other organizations encourage women age 40 and older to get a yearly mammogram to look for abnormalities and cancer in the breast tissue. Early detection can greatly increase your chances of survival and decrease your chances of having to lose one or both breasts in a mastectomy.

What is a Mammogram?

A mammogram, more formally called a mammography exam, is quite simply a type of x-ray. Pictures are taken of each breast to identify any areas of concern or possible cancer. There are two different types of mammograms: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms.

Screening mammograms are routine mammograms for women who do not have any current symptoms of cancer or other abnormalities. They can detect changes in the breast tissue up to two years before you or your doctor would be able to feel them during a regular breast exam.

Diagnostic mammograms are for women who have experienced possible cancer symptoms or found lumps or other abnormalities in their breasts that need to be evaluated further. If you have a screening mammogram that shows some areas of concern, your doctor will often recommend doing a diagnostic mammogram right away. These mammograms take more detailed x-ray images that are magnified to be able to identify and diagnose possible issues.

What Are the Benefits and Risks of Having a Mammogram?

There have been some studies suggesting that annual mammograms are not necessary or even detrimental to women (especially those under 50), but there have also been many proven benefits.

Common risks of having a yearly mammogram include:

  • False positives and false negatives— Mammograms are not flawless, so they can sometimes lead x-ray technicians to believe cancer is present when it’s not (called a false positive) or that cancer is not present when there is, in fact, cancer in a breast (called a false negative).

    False positives can lead to unnecessary testing and biopsies as well as unnecessary distress in a woman. False negatives, on the other hand, can cause a delay in necessary treatment and a false sense of security in a woman.

  • Overdiagnosis— Doctors cannot always determine if an abnormality will cause serious problems or not. So if a tumor or possible cancer is found, it is almost always treated. While it’s a good idea to act on anything potentially life-threatening, some women are unnecessarily exposed to the negative effects of cancer treatment.

  • Exposure to radiation— Many women are afraid of the effects of being exposed to x-ray radiation, but the good news about this concern is that the amount of radiation used in mammograms is very small – even less than a chest x-ray.

While these risks should be taken into consideration, the benefits of annual mammograms far outweigh the risks.

Mammography Saves Lives reports that deaths related to breast cancer have been reduced by 1/3 since 1990. In addition, if a woman 50 or older neglects to have a yearly mammogram, up to 30% of breast cancer can be missed.

Some other benefits of yearly mammograms include:

  • They detect cancer at an early and much more treatable stage.
  • They help to avoid extensive treatment for cancer in an advanced stage.
  • They reduce the chances of needing a full mastectomy.

What to Expect

Mammograms are generally done quickly (within 20-30 minutes) and can be uncomfortable, but usually the discomfort only last for the duration of the mammogram. In order to reduce radiation exposure and decrease breast tissue mass, it’s necessary to flatten the breasts during the x-rays. This also helps to get a more accurate picture of any potential problems.

Even though a mammogram is not a particularly fun experience, it’s essential to making sure you stay healthy and allows doctors to catch any possible cancer or abnormalities as quickly as possible.

If you’re due for a yearly mammogram, schedule an appointment with one of our experienced gynecologists at All About Women in Gainesville or Lake City, Fl. We are committed to providing you with the best care possible when it comes to breast care and early cancer detection.

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