The Breast Advice: Everything to Know About Mammograms and Early Breast Cancer Detection

Every year, countless Americans and those around the world have endured the pain and hardships caused by cancer. While we know skin cancer has been on the rise in recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports breast cancer remains one of the more common cancers among women today. To further drive home the growing concern, reports state one in eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime — suggesting an estimated 246,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will occur by the end of this year alone.

The good news is many women across the nation can survive breast cancer if it’s detected and treated early on. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, PopCulture.com is advocating for mammograms with Dr. Erica Giblin of the Women’s Health Center at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Carmel, Indiana.

What exactly is a mammogram?
Considered an X-ray of the breasts that will help to evaluate changes found in breast tissue, Giblin reveals a mammogram is ultimately two X-rays taken during a standard screening mammogram at a radiology facility. If you already get them done every year, Giblin says the radiologist will compare the most recent X-ray to prior years, while looking for any changes in breast tissue.

Who should get a mammogram?
You might think with a healthy lifestyle and a good sleeping pattern, you’re the exception. But it’s important to always tend to your body and pay attention to any changes.

“All women age 40 or older should have routine mammograms,” Giblin said. “The biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer is increasing age.”

However, she stresses if a woman has a family history of breast cancer, it would be wise to seek a breast examination.

“She should consult with her provider or a breast specialist for assessment to determine if increased imaging surveillance, such as breast MRI, is recommended and to assess for genetic causes, [like] the breast cancer gene, BRCA,” she said.

Who is more at risk for developing breast cancer?
“Risk factors include increasing age, patients with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, women with history of atypia on a biopsy — abnormal cells in the breast tissue, [and] women with a history of radiation to the chest,” Giblin said.

While these risks might seem beyond your control and are daunting to keep up with, there are some factors that may be in your control as per BreastCancer.org. These risk factors include weight, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption.

Can women under 40 get breast cancer?
While it might seem like a shock to some, there are have been several cases over the years where younger women have been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, Giblin attributes this rarity to that of inherited genes.

“I cannot underscore how important it is to talk to your doctor if you have a family history and consider genetic testing,” she said. “If a woman has a strong family history of breast cancer — particularly if those relatives had breast cancer at young ages, such as 30s and 40s, then the woman should start imaging the breasts five to 10 years before the earliest diagnosed relative.”

Additionally, Giblin adds how it’s important for a woman to see a breast specialist and have her lifetime risk of development assessed.

Is a mammogram painful?
While there is no way to fully prepare for a breast examination, she does advise if you have sensitive breasts to take an ibuprofen or Tylenol before the mammogram. However, it’s nothing to be nervous about either.

“For the large majority of women, this is not a painful experience,” she said.

How long does the examination take?
As Giblin puts it simply, a screening mammogram takes less than 15 minutes.

“The technologist will instruct you [on] how to stand and hold your arm during the mammogram, so she can get the best picture of the breast for [an] X-ray assessment,” she said.

What’s a 3-D mammogram?
While conventional mammography produces one image of overlapping tissue, breast tomosynthesis also known as 3-D mammograms, is a type of digital mammography that uses X-ray machines to take pictures of thin slices of the breast tissue from different angles, and reconstructing the image using computer software.

Stressing how useful they are for women with dense breast tissue, Giblin says 3-D mammograms have a 25 to 45 percent increased accuracy in diagnosing breast cancer.

“I recommend all women with dense breast tissue to have their screening mammogram done with [a] 3-D mammogram as it is more accurate and less likely to ‘miss’ breast cancer,” she said.

Adding to Giblin’s encouragement for 3-D mammograms, having dense breast tissue makes it harder to identify cancer on a mammogram and may be associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

How do you know if you have dense breast tissue?
A “Breast Density Notification Law” is currently in effect in 27 states with the intention of providing women who have undergone mammography the necessary information about the risks posed by breast density.

As Giblin says, you will receive a letter in the mail from a radiologist currently reading your mammogram and informing you of the dense breast tissue. From that information, you will be able to make a well-informed decision for your next steps.

Should I opt for thermography instead of a mammogram?
Giblin notes that thermography has become a bit of a buzzword in the medical world. The technique uses imaging that senses heat from the body with the idea that areas of greater heat are more “active”or “growing.” While it might sound exciting and an innovative way to detect breast cancer, Giblin stresses that it is not the standard of care for breast screening as of yet.

“Women need to be made well aware that there are issues with the technology and it can only detect breast cancers that are greater than one centimeter in size,” she said.

This is a revealing note as Giblin shares mammograms and an MRI can detect breast cancers less than one centimeter.

“There has been no definitive studies done proving that thermography is as good as a mammogram,” she said as this technology is still unproven. “Women need to know this because some of them are choosing to do yearly thermography instead of mammograms [and] this is potentially a dangerous choice they are making in eschewing mammography for thermography.”

What’s a self-breast check?
Giblin and St. Vincent’s are strong believers in self-breast checks to help maintain breast health. As reported by the hospital, women in their 20s and 30s should perform self-breast examinations regularly, and have a clinical breast examination by a health care professional every three years as part of their regular health exam.

“Self-exams should be done once a week after your period ends, since it is the time when the breast tissue is least ‘active’ and likely to be less bumpy,” Giblin said.

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Since early detection is the key for a healthy well-being and lifestyle, be sure to talk with your doctor and schedule a mammogram as recommended.

Photo credit: Getty Images / agrobactor