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Nearly one in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, and it’s the second leading cause of cancer death in women, next to lung cancer. Yet many women ask themselves, “Do I really need to get a mammogram?”
A mammogram is an imaging test used to screen women for breast cancer. In fact, it’s your best chance of detecting breast cancer early when treatment is most effective.
That’s why the American Cancer Society recommends that women begin breast cancer screening with mammograms around age 40 and commit to getting yearly mammograms by age 45. While women aged 55 and older may switch to screening every two years or continue annual screening, routine screening every year is the best way to prevent breast cancer.
A mammogram may not be your idea of fun, but it could mean the difference between life and death. Here are six reasons to get a mammogram—and what to expect when you do.
1. Cancer or an abnormality can’t always be felt.
Mammograms can find breast cancer long before you or your doctor would be able to feel a lump in your breast. While breast self-exams are important, you may not feel any changes until a sizable lump has formed. By the time that happens, breast cancer is already growing, spreading, and harder to treat.
A mammogram can see changes to your breast tissue as small as grains of sand, making it the best tool for detecting cancer as early as possible.
2. When caught early, breast cancer is 99% curable.
While mammograms can’t prevent breast cancer, they can help detect it early when there are more treatment options—and before it spreads to other parts of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected while it’s contained to the breast, the survival rate is 99%.
The breast cancer survival rate is 99% when detected early, according to @AmericanCancer. Nurse Linda Wieczynski explains this and 5 other reasons to get a #mammogram via @MedStarHealth's #LiveWellHealthy blog.
3. A mammogram can save your life—and your breasts.
When breast cancer is detected early, you may not need a mastectomy, or surgical removal of the affected breast(s). Instead, a procedure called a lumpectomy may be used to remove only the cancerous tumor while preserving the healthy tissue around it.
4. Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you age—even if no one else in your family has it.
The older you get, the more you are at risk of developing breast cancer. That’s why mammograms aren’t a one-and-done test. It’s important to get screened for breast cancer every year starting at the age of 40.
While being a woman and advancing age are the most significant risk factors, there are others, including:
- Alcohol use
- Physical inactivity
- Family history
However, women without a family history of breast cancer aren’t necessarily in the clear. About 85% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. So even if no one in your family has breast cancer, you are still at risk for developing it yourself.
5. It only takes 20 minutes of your time.
It may not be the most comfortable procedure, but a mammogram only takes 20 minutes —and can give you more time with the people you love most.
6. It’s free for eligible patients.
We offer free clinical breast exams and mammograms at MedStar Harbor Hospital and MedStar Union Memorial Hospital for women who meet certain criteria.
You may be eligible for a free mammogram if you are:
- A woman aged 40 or older
- A Baltimore City or Baltimore County resident
- Living on a limited income
- Uninsured or underinsured
Linda Wieczynski, RN, BSN, Discusses the Importance of Mammograms
What should you expect at your first mammogram?
With a little preparation, your first mammogram can be less stressful than you think.
Here’s what you can expect:
- Scheduling your mammogram: If you haven’t started menopause, it’s a good idea to schedule your mammogram for the week after your menstrual period when your breasts are less sensitive.
- Getting ready: Avoid using deodorants, perfumes, or lotions under your arms or around your breasts, as they can interfere with the picture quality. If you are concerned about feeling discomfort, you may want to take Tylenol before your screening. And, if you are sensitive to caffeine, consider delaying your morning coffee until after your test. In addition, you may want to wear a two-piece outfit instead of a dress, as you’ll remove your top during the screening but can keep everything else on.
- Arrival: Once you arrive, you’ll answer a few questions about your medical history and your family’s medical history. Then, you’ll change into a gown for the screening.
- During the exam: A trained technician will place your breast on the flat surface of the mammography machine. They’ll take two images, compressing your breasts from the top first and then the sides. The right amount of compression will help to ensure clear images, which is important for accuracy. You will feel pressure on your breasts, but it shouldn’t be painful. Try to relax during the test, if you can. This will make it more comfortable and easier to get a quality picture.
- After the exam: Your healthcare provider will follow up with your results in a few weeks. It is common for the first mammogram to reveal new and possibly suspicious findings because they can’t be compared to a previous exam. In most cases, those results are not cancerous. If something abnormal is detected, you’ll come back for a diagnostic mammogram that will take more detailed pictures and possibly, an ultrasound. Your radiologist will review your scans immediately, so you’ll be able to leave with your results.
Thinking about your first mammogram may be intimidating, but the reasons to get a mammogram far outweigh the temporary discomfort you might feel. After all, it could save your life.