A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Mammograms: Myths, facts & screening guidelines

Three generations of women smiling for a photo

A provider may recommend more frequent screenings if a woman has certain risk factors for breast cancer, like family history or genetic predisposition.

With different health organizations making different recommendations about when to start getting mammograms – and how often to get them – women may be wondering what to do.

“If a woman has a question about when she should begin screenings, she should talk to her primary care provider,” Marshfield Clinic radiologist and breast imaging specialist Dr. Gillian Battino said. “Her doctor can determine the best frequency for her based on her cancer risk and health status.”

A doctor may recommend more frequent screenings if a woman has any of the following risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Family history of breast cancer.
  • Personal history of breast cancer.
  • Genetic predisposition, meaning she has BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutations.

Current breast screening recommendations

Marshfield Clinic follows the American Cancer Society recommendations for breast cancer screening, Battino said.

Every woman should get an annual mammogram starting at age 45, though they also “should have the choice to start screening with yearly mammograms as early as age 40,” as stated by American Cancer Society.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2009 recommended women get screened every other year starting at age 50, but that recommendation isn’t being widely followed, Battino said.

Myth: Radiation from mammograms is dangerous.

Fact: The benefits of screening mammograms outweigh the risks. A woman is more likely to die of undetected breast cancer than she is to develop cancer caused by exposure to radiation during screening.

A mammogram is the best way to detect breast cancer, and technology is improving, Battino said. Marshfield Clinic now offers 3-D mammograms, which make it easier to find cancer in women with dense breasts.

Myth: Pregnant women shouldn’t get mammograms.

Fact: Doctors try to plan screening exams when women aren’t pregnant. If a pregnant woman notices a mass or change in her breasts, a mammogram can safely be performed. A shield is used to protect the mother’s belly from radiation.

Myth: Women with no family history of breast cancer aren’t at risk and don’t need mammograms.

Fact: Most newly diagnosed breast cancer patients don’t have a family history of breast cancer.

Myth: Masses can be found through self-exams. If a woman doesn’t notice a mass on self-exam, she doesn’t need a mammogram.

Fact: At least half of breast cancers can’t be detected on self-exam, even if the mass is large. It’s important to be aware of how your breasts look and feel, but screening mammograms are the best way to detect cancer.

Myth: Mammograms are expensive.

Fact: All Marketplace health plans and many other plans must cover screening mammograms. The Wisconsin Well Woman Program pays for mammograms for women with little or no health insurance coverage.

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