Uncomfortable but Necessary, Mammograms Save Lives

It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. I can’t afford it. My family doesn’t have a history of breast cancer.

Is a mammogram really that important?

During October, women’s health organizations band together for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with the common goal of increasing the use of mammograms and self-breast exams.

The focus is on early detection of the disease—a life-saving measure that still doesn’t happen frequently enough, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

“While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same,” the group said on its website.

And while most women know self-exams and mammograms are the first line of early detection, conflicting recommendations from various sources about when and how often to have mammograms have left them confused.

In most cases, “women should have a yearly mammogram starting at age 40 as recommended by the American College of Radiology,” says Marilyn Miers, RN supervisor for Peggy A. Bell Women’s Diagnostic and Breast Center at Texas Health Dallas.

“I usually tell them to start getting a screening mammogram at age 40, and every year after that if there are no risk factors,” says Radha Iyengar, M.D., a breast surgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Allen.

In fact, age 40 seems to be the consensus across the board, says Kory Jones, M.D., a breast surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial.

“Most breast surgeons, radiologists and medical societies believe that women should start having yearly screening mammograms at the age of 40,” Jones says.

“If you have a first-degree relative who had breast cancer at a younger age, you would want to have your first mammogram 10 years prior to that person’s diagnosis,” she explains further. “For instance, if your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45, you would want to have your first mammogram at age 35.”

And if you put it off, you’re not alone. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, less than 67 percent of women said they had received a mammogram in the last two years.

Why? Miers says some of the reasons she usually hears is that the woman has no family history of cancer, or that they are afraid of finding cancer. Cost, she said, is also a factor for some women.

“I think the biggest reason women put off having a mammogram is that mammograms are not comfortable,” Iyengar says. “Unfortunately, they’re the only screening tool that helps catch breast cancer in its earliest stages.

A breast center with well-trained technicians can make a difference in comfort level, too. A good technician can compress the breast in a way that is not as uncomfortable, but to get a good image, some discomfort is necessary.

“There is a perception that mammograms are very painful. They do press on your breasts in different angles, which can be uncomfortable to women with sensitive or tender breasts,” Jones says. “However, they do not last very long and they aren’t invasive—most women have minimal discomfort.”

But regardless of the temporary discomfort, all three physicians agree that getting regular mammograms is a must.

“Mammography is the best screening tool for early detection,” Miers says.

“They save lives,” Iyengar agrees. “If we’re able to find cancers at an early stage, we can obviously treat them earlier, too.”

In fact, Jones says that a good mammogram can even detect a problem before it has a chance to become cancerous.

“Finding these cancers early means that most women are able to keep their breasts and only have the localized cancer removed,” Jones adds. “Also, when cancer is caught at an earlier stage, many women can avoid having to undergo treatment with chemotherapy.”

And cost should not be an issue. During the month of October, opportunities for low-cost or no-cost mammograms and exams are abundant. For instance, Texas Health Plano recently received a $25,000 grant from the NBCF to provide free mammograms to uninsured women in Collin County. Many other organizations in North Texas also help with free or low-cost mammography.

In fact, thanks to a new state law, more women in Texas will get potentially life-saving 3D mammograms, an imaging test to spot breast cancer that Texas Health Resources helped bring to North Texas as one of the country’s first test sites.

Texas House Bill 1036 took effect this month, mandating that commercial insurance plans cover 3D mammography, known as digital breast tomosynthesis. Physicians on the medical staffs at Texas Health hospitals, say the advanced imaging can help detect breast cancer earlier than traditional mammography.

Dr. Iyengar recently was featured on a Texas Health Out Loud podcast discussing breast health and mammograms. Listen below!

Are you an employer or part of a group that would like to make mammograms even more convenient? Contact the Mobile Health Unit by calling 817-250-1910 or emailing THRMobileUnit@texashealth.org to get more information.

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