Breast cancer is surpassed only by skin cancer as the most common type of cancer in women in the United States. Regular check-ups and screenings play a major role in diagnosis of the disease and hence are highly recommended. Screenings are diagnostic tests conducted as a preventative measure and a means of early diagnosis of diseases.
Thanks to the advancement of medical science, with the use of modern technology and procedures, diagnosis of breast cancer can be made even if there are no symptoms visible. Known as mammogram screening, the test screens breasts for breast cancer.
Breast cancer screening – Mammograms
As noted earlier, regular screenings are helpful to detect the disease early. It makes it easier to treat as well as apply lifestyle changes for preventing the disease altogether. A mammography involves each breast being placed against two plates on an x-ray radiation machine, which compresses and flattens the breast to get an image. This procedure lasts for 20 minutes and is only slightly uncomfortable. The images are reproduced on film.
Alternatively, digital mammography can be chosen, where the report is presented in a digital format in place of x-ray films. The accuracy of both digital mammography and traditional mammography is the same.
Appropriate age for mammography screening and new guidelines
As per earlier mammogram guidelines, on reaching the age of 40, women were advised to undergo screening. However, current guidelines from various medical groups are conflicting with regard to the age at which to get the first mammogram done.
- The American Cancer Society, or ACS, which until recently recommended that women over 40 have mammograms, has now changed the age group to women over 45.
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG, recommends starting at the age of 40.
- The U.S Preventative Services Task Force Services, or USPSTF, recommends waiting until the age of 50 before having a mammogram done.
These groups differ even on how often women should get tested. According to the USPSTF, they can have it done every 2 years; on the other hand, the ACOG recommends annual checkups. Also as per the new rules, ACS suggests annual screenings for those between the ages of 45 and 54, and beyond that, every two years.
The best way to decide is to consult the family physician who knows the patients personally; he or she will know their family history, age, and other risk factors that decide whether or not a mammogram is necessary earlier.
Outcome of the New Rules
The medical groups pushing for an earlier age for mammograms are doing so to prevent the disease at an earlier stage. However, the medical groups pushing for later ages for the screenings are also justified. They are preventing overdiagnosis and false positives. A false positive is when a mammogram image shows irregularities or something suspicious but further testing confirms it to be nothing more than a false alarm. Occurrences of false positives are more frequent before menopause because breasts are dense.
The ultimate decision for a woman to go earlier or later for her mammogram depends on her personal background. Those with a family history of breast cancer or presence of BRCA gene mutation or other risk factors need not wait until 40. They must have a screening done earlier.