Conflicting recommendations during the past few years have increased confusion among women regarding the value of mammography and its role in preventing breast cancer deaths.
Despite the controversies, mammography remains the best method we have for finding breast cancer early at a curable stage. Since mammography screening became widespread in the 1990s, the U.S. breast cancer death rate has decreased by 30 percent.
When should I begin mammography? You should have your first mammogram at age 40. Why?
Because breast cancer is faster growing and more aggressive in younger women. A study from Harvard Medical School published recently online in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, found that most breast cancer deaths occur in younger women who do not receive yearly mammograms. Among 609 cancer deaths, 71 percent were among women who did not receive mammographic screening, and 50 percent of cancer deaths occurred in women under age 50.
Should I have a mammogram ever year or every 2 years?
We recommend a mammogram every year. A fast-growing breast cancer can occur between mammograms and become sizeable within two years. Screening every year gives the best chance at finding cancers while they are still small.
By not getting annual mammograms starting at age 40, you increase your chances of dying from breast cancer and the likelihood that you will experience more extensive and expensive treatment for any cancers found.
Am I at risk even if no one in my family has breast cancer?
Yes. One in eight women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Of these women, three in four will have no family history of breast cancer.
Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. About one out of eight invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45, while about two of three invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older.
All women age 40 and older, regardless of their cancer risk, should consider screening mammography. If you do have a family history of breast cancer or you are otherwise at increased risk, let your doctor know and discuss the best screening plan for you.
Can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?
A healthy lifestyle increases resistance to cancer and many other diseases. A diet low in fat with plenty of phytochemicals and antioxidants (found in fresh fruits and vegetables) and avoidance of obesity are recommended.
Avoid alcohol and cigarettes, both of which increase risk for breast and other cancers. Exercise! But remember, even women with a healthy lifestyle develop breast cancer, and there is no substitute for screening mammography to find cancers early and reduce deaths from breast cancer.
Experts at the UK Markey Comprehensive Breast Care Center, the American Cancer Society (ACS),American College of Radiology (ACR), and Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) all recommend that women receive yearly mammograms beginning at age 40.
Dr. Carol Dell is a radiologist at the Markey Cancer Center's Comprehensive Breast Care Center.