It seems as though there’s a story in the news every week detailing new recommendations for your health. These stories usually focus on the benefits or risks of certain foods, medications or medical screenings.
Screening mammography ranks high among the topics frequently debated, with recommendations that constantly change. With these constant changes comes confusion over what age to start screenings and how often to undergo mammography.
In an attempt to clarify this confusion, it’s important to first understand a few facts about breast cancer:
Breast cancer affects one in eight women. Nearly everyone will be affected by this disease at some point in their life, either personally or through a friend or family member.
The two main risk factors of breast cancer — gender and family history — are predetermined and out of your control.
Most early stage breast cancer is curable.
Screening mammography is important because it can detect breast cancer in the curable stage. Unfortunately, by the time you can feel a breast mass, cancer usually has progressed beyond the early stages.
Recent modifications to the original screening recommendations suggest women should begin screening at a later age and screen less frequently than every year. However, this ignores the fact breast cancer in younger women tends to be more aggressive. Cancer in post-menopausal women tends to be less aggressive and slower growing. This would suggest screening earlier and more frequently in the pre-menopausal population and screening less frequently after menopause makes sense.
Many people worry about the risks of radiation exposure with frequent mammography. To put this in perspective, the following facts might help: By living in the Grand Valley, we’re exposed to 4 millisieverts of background radiation a year. A millisievert is a unit of measurement accepted by physicists. A mammogram generates less than 1 mSv, a quarter of the amount of radiation exposure from just living in the valley.
With all of this in mind, it’s my opinion screening mammography early and often offers the best approach. Start screening at age 40. Continue every year until your health would no longer allow you to undergo treatment if cancer was detected.
Annual mammograms are especially important if you have a strong history of breast cancer in your family. If you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, screening every other year after menopause would be acceptable. I encourage you to discuss with your medical care provider a screening plan that best fits you.