Making Sense of Mammography Guidelines
When and how often do you need a mammogram? A recent flurry of recommendations on screening mammography from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and American Cancer Society can help women make more informed decisions about their healthcare, but they have also left many women feeling confused about what they should do and what is allowed.
Susan Branton, MD, FACS, Medical Director and Renee Quarterman, MD, FACS, breast surgeons with Susquehanna Health’s Breast Health Center, offer suggestions to help you determine what’s best for your breast health.
Q: What is a screening mammogram and why should women get them?
A: A screening mammogram is an X-ray exam of the breasts, usually two images per breast, to look for breast cancer that is too small to be felt during a self-exam or before a woman has any other symptoms. Detecting breast cancer at its earlier stages is associated with greater treatment success rates.
Q: Is it true that 40 is now considered too young to begin getting screening mammograms?
A: Not necessarily. Recent recommendations have created confusion about this by suggesting that not EVERY woman will benefit from screening at age 40. Women in the Susquehanna Health community should know that screening for breast cancer is very important and insurance coverage for screening mammograms has not changed. Don’t skip your screening mammogram without consulting with your physician or advanced practice professional first.
Q: Are screening mammograms beneficial?
A: Screening mammogram programs are associated with a 28 to 36 percent reduction in breast cancer deaths—that number is even higher in some studies. Research shows screening mammograms have the greatest benefit for women ages 40-74 and are most effective for women ages 50-74.
Q: What are the concerns with screening mammograms? Are they harmful?
A: Concerns raised about screening mammograms include the possible need for additional imaging, such as a diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound or MRI. There is also the risk of false positives, which can cause unnecessary stress and worry, and a risk of over diagnosis leading to treatments for cancers that would not have caused symptoms or death.
Q: Should I change from getting a yearly mammogram to getting one every two years?
A: New recommendations leave the option open for women to continue with yearly screening mammograms. The frequency of your breast cancer screenings should be determined in consultation with your physicians and advanced practice professionals.
Q: Do the new guidelines apply to all women?
A: The new guidelines attempt to balance benefits and harms of screening mammograms for women at AVERAGE risk to develop breast cancer. The guidelines do not apply to women at higher risk.
Q: How do I sort through what’s best for me?
A: You can expect recommendations to evolve as newer technology and studies help doctors determine the best ways to detect and treat breast cancer. Knowing current recommendations is only part of the puzzle; you also need to know your risks. All of the available guidelines, including the American Cancer Society and the United States Prevention Services Task Force (USPSTF), stress that each case be evaluated and recommendations be tailored for each individual. That means you can make the best decisions for your health by discussing your family history and risks with your physician or advanced practice professional.
Q: What additional steps can I take to manage my breast health?
A: You should know how your breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes to a healthcare provider right away. That is probably the simplest yet most important step you can take in addition to knowing your personal risk.
Do you still have questions? Do not hesitate to call us; we are happy to help however we can! You can reach Susquehanna Health Breast Health Center at (570) 326-8200.