Mammograms: A Guide to When, Why, and Types of Technology

Each October, pink ribbons appear on everything from coffee cups to sports team uniforms. For many, the familiar symbol of Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings to mind a friend or loved one who has or had breast cancer. The pink ribbon also prompts women to think about breast cancer screening for themselves — a thought that often leads to questions and confusion. 

With several changes to guidelines for mammography during recent years, many women feel unsure of when and how often they need a mammogram. Added to that decision is all the talk about 3D mammograms, a technology that’s becoming increasingly common. Here’s a short guide to some of the most frequently asked questions about mammography. 

When Should I Start Getting Mammograms?

While there are some general guidelines, there is no standard answer. The best time to have your first mammogram depends on your individual medical history and your family’s health history. 

Each woman should have a conversation with her primary care doctor about her individual breast cancer risks to determine when to begin mammography. 

Your doctor will consider a number of risk factors, including:

  • Your age
  • Any family history of breast cancer
  • A genetic mutation is known to increase your risk
  • A history of smoking
  • Your weight
  • Alcohol use
  • Your menstrual history
  • Your pregnancy and breastfeeding history
  • If you have had precancerous breast lesions

Current guidelines from the American Cancer Society

The following guidelines from the American Cancer Society are for women at average risk for breast cancer. 

  • Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
  • Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.

Women with a high risk of breast cancer may benefit from starting screening mammograms before age 40. Your risk factors may lead your doctor to recommend magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in combination with mammograms.

The key is to talk through all of the relevant factors with your doctor. Together, you can decide what mammography schedule is best for you.

Why Is a Mammogram Important?

A mammogram is one of the most important tools in finding breast cancer early. In fact, a mammogram can often find breast changes that could be cancer years before a lump or other physical symptoms can be noticed. 

Finding breast cancer early means it’s easier to treat and reduces the risk of cancer spreading to other areas of the body. For many women, detecting breast cancer in the early stages can help them avoid a mastectomy.

Some women are reluctant to get a mammogram because they worry about radiation exposure. Today’s mammography technology involves a very small amount of radiation — less than a standard chest X-ray. 

Do I Need a 3D Mammogram?

Three-dimensional mammography, also known as digital breast tomosynthesis, uses several low-dose X-ray images from different angles around the breast to create a 3D picture. Traditional mammography results in a 2D image. 

A number of studies have shown benefits to 3D mammograms, including:  

  • Invasive breast cancers found with 3D mammography were more likely to be smaller and less likely to have spread to the lymph nodes compared to breast cancers found with standard digital mammography, according to a study published in Feb. 2019 by the journal JAMA Oncology
  • The same study found that, overall, 3D mammography screening increased breast cancer detection rates by about 40%.
  • 3D mammograms result in fewer false positive readings that require more screening and testing. A false positive is when a mammogram identifies an abnormal area that looks like cancer but turns out to be benign. Any abnormal areas found in a mammogram require extra tests and follow up in order to rule out cancer. 

In the Triad area, Cone Health offers 3D mammography at six locations.  

Need to Discuss What’s Best for You?

If you need to talk with a trusted medical professional about your breast cancer risk factors and possible mammogram screening, LeBauer primary care providers help patients decide when they need a mammogram and can refer patients for mammogram screenings. 

All nine LeBauer primary care locations are currently accepting new patients. Request an appointment online or call the most convenient location. Existing LeBauer patients can schedule an appointment through MyChart

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