Regular breast cancer screenings are effective

The health care community has made great strides in raising awareness about breast cancer over the years.

We know that waiting until you feel a lump during a self-exam might mean you already are in a later stage of the disease, so our goal as physicians is to detect cancer long before a woman can feel it. One way we do that is through mammogram screenings — the most common and effective way to detect abnormalities that can lead to breast cancer.

The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more options you have. Treatments are less invasive, and survival rates are greater. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which provides a great forum for us to stress how important it is for women to not put off their annual mammograms.

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that breast cancer is still the most common cancer among women. About 12 percent of U.S. women will develop an invasive form of breast cancer during their lifetimes.

Women who are nervous about getting their first mammogram should not fret over this simple procedure. A mammogram is simply an X-ray exam of the breast. During the screening, the breast is compressed or squeezed between an adjustable plastic plate (on top) and a fixed X-ray plate (on the bottom). The bottom plate holds the digital "camera" that makes the image of your breast. The pressure on the breast lasts only a few seconds. Some women experience some mild discomfort, but overall the procedure is not a painful one.

Using digital technology to examine mammography images and flag abnormalities in the breast, physicians work with radiologists to interpret these images and detect possible signs of breast cancer. Mammogram screenings fall under preventive care and are covered by most insurance plans.

The American Cancer Society's offers the following screening guidelines for mammograms:

■ Yearly mammograms are recommended for all women beginning at age 40 and continuing as long as they are in good health.

■ A clinical breast exam should be performed every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and annually for women 40 and older.

■ Women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to their health care provider. Starting in their 20s, women should perform regular breast self-exams. Be aware that some changes in breast tissue and tenderness can vary with your menstrual cycle.

■ In addition to routine mammograms, MRI or ultrasound screening may be required for certain high-risk populations (those with a strong family history or genetic breast cancer syndromes). Only about 2 percent of women in the United States fall into this category.

In addition to having a family history of breast or other gynecologic cancers, women who have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at high risk for breast cancer. Other risk factors include age, obesity, more than moderate alcohol use, prior exposure to high levels of radiation, hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills, never having children or having your first child over age 35, and having high breast tissue density.

If you have never had a mammogram, your first screening will serve as a baseline to identify the basic architecture of your breasts. Those initial images will be compared to all future results in order to determine abnormalities or changes.

Talk with your primary care provider or OB/GYN about regular screenings, or whether you might need additional tests at an earlier age. We are fortunate to have such wonderful technology available as a weapon in the fight against cancer, but it is only effective if we use it. Don't put it off; schedule your mammogram today.