A Mammogram Is Still Important
Over the last decade, more Americans have been dismissing cancer screenings, including mammograms. Why? Experts suspect this drop may partly be because of the confusion surrounding screening guidelines. Despite this uncertainty, mammograms remain a valuable tool in fighting breast cancer.
A mammogram is an X-ray image of the breast. Doctors use mammograms to detect changes in breast tissue, such as cysts, tumors, and calcifications, which are tiny deposits of minerals. These changes aren't always cancerous. But if they are, mammograms can help find them early, often before a woman notices any symptoms, such as a lump.
Early detection often translates into better odds for breast cancer survival. Yet some experts disagree on when women should start having mammograms and how often. Part of the problem is overdiagnosis. It happens when a cancer that would never have caused any harm in a person's lifetime is found. Women who are overdiagnosed may face unnecessary treatments with serious side effects. Research suggests that as many as 15 to 25 percent of women may be overdiagnosed with breast cancer.
Other concerns stem from possible inaccurate results. Like other tests, mammograms have such risks. Mammograms may not detect all cancers. This problem is more common in younger women because they have denser breast tissue. Sometimes, mammograms may give a positive test result when no cancer is present. This potential risk can cause anxiety and lead to more unneeded testing.
Based on these concerns about overdiagnosis and other risks for mammograms, some experts, including the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, now recommend women ages 50 to 74 have a mammogram every two years. In contrast, the American Cancer Society recommends a yearly mammogram for women ages 40 and older.
Despite this difference in the screening guidelines, mammograms are still important in the fight against breast cancer. Research has shown that women who have mammograms are less likely to die from the disease. That's the big benefit of early detection. And it may well outweigh any potential harm.
The bottom line: Women shouldn't dismiss having a mammogram. They should talk with their doctor about their individual needs and personal risk factors for breast cancer. Women can then make the best decision for themselves about when and how often to have a mammogram.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.