Mammography: the Importance of Early Detection

Mammograms find between 85 and 90 percent of breast cancers. That is why it's so important for a woman to combine an annual mammogram with monthly breast self-examinations and a physical examination of the breasts by her personal physician. Mammography finds cancers up to two years before they can be felt, which means at a very early stage, when the cancer is most curable.

The single greatest magnifier of the risk of contracting breast cancer is age. At age 25, your chances are one in 19,608. At age 50, your chances are one in 50. At age 65, your chances are one in 24. And your overall lifetime risk is one in 8. Another strong risk factor is a personal or family history of breast cancer. Other factors include:

  • First menstrual period at a early age (before age 12)
  • Late menopause (after age 50)
  • First child after age 30
  • Never having children

There are two kinds of mammograms:

Screening Mammogram -- Taken when there are no signs or symptoms of breast cancer, the X-rays are performed by a registered radiologic technologist and interpreted by a radiologist (medical doctor). This mammogram takes between 15 and 30 minutes.

Diagnostic Mammogram -- Taken when there are signs or symptoms of breast cancer, a personal history of breast cancer, breast implants or a specific problem found on a mammogram that needs further evaluation. The X-rays are performed by a registered radiologic technologist. As the mammogram is being performed, a radiologist monitors the films taken and has the technologist obtain all the necessary views to evaluate the problem. This mammogram takes between 30 and 45 minutes.

There are certain circumstances under which you should consult your physician before scheduling a mammogram. If you are pregnant or have been breastfeeding during the last six months, it would be best to postpone your mammogram.

Talk with your physician about a diagnostic mammogram if you have breast implants, or if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Lump or thickening in the breast or under the arm
  • Marked asymmetry of your breasts
  • Changes in the veins on your breasts
  • Unexplained discoloration of your skin (redness or bruising)
  • Shiny skin, or large pores
  • Skin ulcers
  • Dimpling, puckering, retraction of the skin or areola
  • Fixed inversion of the nipple, which is a change from a previous examination
  • Scaling, crusting or drainage of the nipple or areola
  • Localized breast pain

You need not be concerned about the levels of radiation. The doses are very small and tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.

You will feel some pressure as the mammogram is performed, but any discomfort will last only for a few seconds. Compression and flattening of the breasts are key to getting the best pictures possible. Because breasts are more sensitive just before your menstrual period, you should try to schedule your mammogram seven to 10 days after the start of your period.

Generally a written report from your screening mammogram will be mailed to you and/or your physician. Reports for diagnostic mammograms are sent only to physicians. Then each patient is notified personally by her physician about the results.

Every woman needs mammography at an interval that is deemed appropriate for her age and risk factors. Remember, even if a breast lump is discovered by physical exam or mammography, more than 80 percent of them are noncancerous. The key defense for every woman is early detection.