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What to Know About Mammograms

SICHC - Reduce your risk of Breast Cancer

By Stephanie Frye – Family Nurse Practitioner

May 9 starts National Women’s Health Week and with that in mind, let’s talk about the health of our breasts. 

Breast Cancer: Rates and Risk Factors

First the numbers: in 2017 among the top 10 cancers for females, breast cancer leads in the list of the new cancer cases and is the second on the list by rates of cancer deaths. In the U.S., about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, with an estimated 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 49,290 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer expected to be diagnosed in women in 2021.

You can divide the risk factors for breast cancer into groups: those you can control and those you can’t. The first group includes smoking, drinking alcohol, being obese and being physical inactive. Also, if you’ve had radiation therapy to your chest or breasts, have taken the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) or used specific forms of hormone replacement therapy during menopause, or certain types of oral contraceptives, your risk also increases. 

As for factors outside your control, these include being 50 years old or older, having dense breast tissue, your reproductive history (when you started and stopped having periods), a family history of breast or ovarian cancer and genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain races and ethnicities also face an increased risk. This could be due to various lifestyle patterns, reduced access to mammography or lower quality medical care.

Tip: Want to know more about what you can do? Download the Think Pink, Live Green: A Step-by-Step Guide to Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer for 31 risk-reducing steps you can take today.


Breast Cancer Screening: Breast Self Exams (BSEs) and Mammograms 

Now that you know your risk, what else can you do besides making changes to reduce your controllable factors? Follow these two steps: know what’s normal for your breasts and undergo mammograms according to the schedule advised by your health care practitioner. 

What are some breast changes that you should bring to your doctor’s attention? lists the following:

  • A lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • A swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast or a new pain in one area
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple or sudden nipple discharge 
  • Pulling in or dimpling of the skin of your nipple or other parts of the breast

A breast self-exam (BSE) involves both looking at your breasts in a mirror and using your fingers to touch all the areas of both breasts while lying down and sitting. If you’re still having periods, do the physical exam a few days after your period starts, since your breasts are less lumpy and painful. (Follow the detailed instructions here.)

While a BSE shouldn’t replace mammograms, it could increase the odds of early detection as well as help you learn what’s normal for your breasts.

When you have an annual healthcare visit, you can ask for a clinical breast exam. It’s performed by a healthcare professional who is trained to know the various breast abnormalities and warning signs that could indicate a need for a more thorough screening. 

Next on the list is a mammogram. This is a low-dose x-ray exam that gives doctors a closer look at your breast tissue to identify changes that can’t be felt during a breast exam. It can take about 20 minutes from start to finish, since each breast is done separately, with two pictures taken of each: one from the side and one from above. While it’s true that having your breast compressed between the machine’s two plates can be uncomfortable, remember it only lasts a few seconds. 

There are two kinds of mammograms: screening and diagnostic. Screening mammograms are for those women with no symptoms of breast cancer, while diagnostic mammograms are used when a lump or other symptom or sign of breast cancer has been found. (Women with dense breast may benefit from having a digital screening mammogram rather than a film one since it may provide a better image.)

A three-dimensional (3-D) mammogram, also called breast tomosynthesis and digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT), takes multiple images of the breast from different angles, then reconstructs the images to give a three-dimensional image set. Studies have shown that this form of screening provides improved breast cancer detection rates and fewer “call-backs” for additional testing because of a potentially abnormal finding. It can also be more gentle on the breast than the conventional mammogram. 

If your screening mammogram shows test result that suggest an abnormality, the next step may be any or all of the following: 

  • An ultrasound—an imaging test that uses sound waves to create a picture of your breast
  • A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—an imaging test that uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to provide an image
  • A biopsy—a test that removes fluid or tissue from your breast to examine for cancer cells

The schedule for screening mammograms can vary. According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), women ages 50 to 74 years should get a mammogram every two years. The American Cancer Society says women age 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms, while those age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year, and after that switching either to mammograms every two years, or continuing with yearly screening. In general, it’s a good idea to discuss the best frequency and your risk factors with their health care providers.

For more about mammograms, download this fact sheet from the Office on Women’s Health. You can also watch this video from Cedars-Sinai on the breast cancer screening process. 

Free Mammograms
Patoka Family Health Care in November, 2021 – Call ahead to schedule your preventative screening.


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