Falling for common mammogram myths could have a serious impact on your long-term health. Dr. George Krakora, Medical Director of Renown’s Breast Health Center, gives us the real facts on mammograms.
Think it’s not a big deal skipping your annual mammogram this year? Or are you concerned that a mammogram uses too much radiation? A yearly mammogram starting at age 40 for women with average cancer risk helps to detect breast cancer earlier, leading to less aggressive treatment and a higher rate of survival.
“When a patient decides to forego their mammogram, it might be related to fear, misinformation or misconception,” says Dr. Krakora. “Patients should know that mammograms are safe, quick, and can be lifesaving, especially when they are completed annually.”
Myth 1 – I don’t have any symptoms of breast cancer or a family history, so I don’t need to worry about having an annual mammogram.
The American College of Radiology recommends women ages 25 and older to have a formal risk assessment for breast cancer. Women with higher-than-average risk should have yearly screenings and be offered supplemental imaging. Women with average risk should have yearly screenings beginning at age 40.
“Early detection is critical,” says Dr. Krakora. “If you wait to have a mammogram until you have symptoms of breast cancer, such as a lump or discharge, at that point the cancer may be more advanced and may no longer be curable.” According to the American Cancer Society, early-stage breast cancers have a five-year survival rate of 99 percent. Later-stage cancers have survival rates of 24 percent.
And Ninety percent women who have breast cancer have no family history. “Most breast cancers are spontaneous genetic changes that occur in the individual and are not necessarily due to family history or a breast cancer gene,” says Dr. Krakora.
Myth 2 – A mammogram will expose me to an unsafe level of radiation.
“While a mammogram does use radiation, it is a very small amount and is within the medical guidelines,” says Dr. Krakora. Because mammography is a screening tool, it is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Mammography Quality and Standards Act and other governing organizations, like the American College of Radiology.
A mammogram is safe as long as the facility you go to is certified by the regulating agencies. There is constant background radiation in the world that we are exposed to every day. The radiation dose from a mammogram is equal to about two months of background radiation for the average woman.
Myth 3 – If I have any type of cancer in my breast tissue, a screening mammogram is guaranteed to find it.
While annual mammograms are very important for women, there are limitations to the technology. This is mostly due to dense breast tissue — the denser the breast, the more likely it is that a cancer will be hidden by the tissue. Normal breast tissue can both hide a cancer and mimic a cancer. Other imaging methods can be used for women with dense breast tissue, such as whole breast ultrasound or breast MRI.
Myth 4 – I had a normal mammogram last year, so I don’t need another one this year.
Mammography is detection, not prevention. “Having a normal mammogram is great news, but it does not guarantee that future mammograms will be normal,” says Dr. Krakora. “Studies have shown a 33 percent decrease in death from breast cancer in women over 40 who had regular screening mammograms.”
Myth 5 – My doctor didn’t tell me I needed a mammogram, so I cannot schedule an exam.
You do not need a doctor to write a prescription or complete an order form for you to have a screening mammogram. “The recommendation is that if you are a woman age 40 or older, you should have a mammogram every year, even if your doctor forgets to mention it,” says Dr. Krakora. Women can self-refer to make an appointment for their annual mammogram.