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What Is the Truth About Mammograms

By Ronayne Herbert, RNP

 

For most women, the hassle and time it takes to get a mammogram and the anxiety of waiting for the results, make the experience unpleasant. But, if you are a woman of a certain age, you know that a mammogram is one of the handful of medical screening tests that you should have on a regular basis, along with a pap smear, colonoscopy, and a skin check. You may also know that the question of how often you should have these tests is often up for debate as well as family history which may be a predictor of your own risk. And while the debate continues, most medical experts do seem to agree on one thing: Age-based screening is effective.

 

In January 2014 the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a review of fifty years worth of studies regarding the value of mammograms. Although the article stated that the benefits are often overrated, it stressed that screening should be determined based on the woman’s individual risk and preference. The National Cancer Institute (NCI), notes that mammograms in women between the ages of 40-74 help reduce the number of deaths due to breast cancer. This is more significant in women over 50. They also note the limitations of mammography which include: false positive or false negative results, overdiagnosis, overtreatment and risk for radiation exposure.

 

The benefits of mammography vary with age. Below are the recommendations of four leading health organizations for mammography for women of average risk:

1. The American Cancer Society- annual mammogram starting at age 40.

2. The National Cancer Institute – every 1-2 years starting at age 40.

3. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network – every year starting at age 40.

4. US Preventive Services Task Force – informed decision making with a health care provider from ages 50-74; then every 2 years.

 

It is up to you to make informed decisions regarding your health. You are responsible for knowing your risk factors:

1. Do you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer?

2. Do you notice any differences in your breasts; such as lumps, pain, color or skin changes, nipple discharge or puckering?

3. Are you making healthy lifestyle choices such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, limiting alcohol intake and hormonal therapy?

 

So, when should you have a mammogram? Ultimately it’s your decision. But, the choice to have an annual mammogram should be made with the help of your health care provider based on your age and your risk factors in conjunction with a clinical breast exam. What matters is that you make the best decision for you and your body.