When Should You Get a Mammogram?
New Recommendations from the American Cancer Society
Moms often put themselves last, even when it comes to routine medical care. To make matters worse, many women don’t know at what age to get a first mammogram or how often to get screened because of confusing, even conflicting, information.
Phyllis Smith, a Feasterville, PA mom, admits with embarrassment that she didn’t know about the American Cancer Society’s recent changes to mammogram recommendations. “I don’t know how often I’m supposed to get a mammogram. Probably every four or five years,” guesses Smith.
Like many women, Smith, who is 55, believes that she doesn’t need to worry because breast cancer doesn’t run in her family. But if you understand your individual risk as well as the benefits and potential harm of mammograms, you could save your life.
New mammogram guidelines
The American Cancer Society’s recommendations for women of average life-time risk of getting breast cancer (which is about 12 percent) have changed based on the most accurate, evidence-based research available, with the goal to reduce false positives and increase the benefits of having a mammogram. However, the new guidelines leave the final decision on mammogram frequency up to the doctor’s discretion, says Arnold Baskies, MD, chief science officer and vice chairman of the American Cancer Society’s Board of Directors.
Your first mammogram
Dr. Baskies recommends that by age 40 women should discuss with their doctor when to have their first mammogram. “Screening should be individualized but no later than age 45. Younger women have an extremely low risk of developing breast cancer between the ages of 35-44 and a much greater chance of having false positives,” explains Dr. Baskies.
“There are a lot of false positives,” says Diana Dickson-Witmer, MD, medical director of the Christiana Care Breast Center at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark, DE. “Then people have biopsies and interventions to prove that something isn’t cancer,” she adds.
See page 2 for screening timelines and info on a new prevention program.
How often should you get screened?
The American Cancer Society finds, says Dr. Baskies, “That the data shows getting a mammogram every other year can be as beneficial as having the screening done every year.”
For women ages 40-55, the physician decides whether to order a mammogram yearly or every two years, says gynecologist Vivian N. Greenberg, MD, from Womencare Ob/Gyn, in Abington and Willow Grove, PA. After age 55, the recommended frequency for a mammogram changes to every two years.
Women should have breast self-awareness, too, notes Dr. Dickson-Witmer, so they notice a lump or a change in the shape, weight or feel of their breasts and notify their doctor.
If women make lifestyle changes to reduce cancer risk, explains Dr. Dickson-Witmer, who thinks prevention get overlooked too often, and have a mammogram every year starting at age 45, they will likely find any cancer in its earliest stage when it is most treatable.
“Currently, the cure rate for breast cancer approaches 90 percent,” indicates Dr. Greenberg, “because the vast majority of cases are diagnosed at stage 1 or 0. Without regular screening, I fear diagnosis will more commonly be made at a more advanced stage, mortality rates will increase and cure rates will decrease.”
Lynda Dell is a freelance writer and experienced PA-certified early childhood educator.