5 mammogram myths, debunked
Mammograms are a critical tool doctors have available to detect breast cancer in its early stages, which can provide women with more treatment options and better outcomes.
“To date, annual mammography is the only screening modality proven to reduce breast cancer mortality,” says Jamie Hui, MD, a radiologist with our partner Carol Milgard Breast Center in Tacoma. “Since 1990, mammography has helped reduce breast cancer mortality in the U.S. by nearly 40 percent.”
Yet, some women put off this annual screening, out of fear of the mammogram itself, or a misunderstanding of why mammograms are important.
We asked Dr. Hui to set the record straight on five common myths and misconceptions about mammograms.
Myth 1: Mammograms are extremely painful
Dr. Hui: Mammograms may be uncomfortable because the breast must be held in compression, but it should not be a very painful or traumatic experience. Some women experience breast tenderness during the menstrual cycle. If this is the case for you, then consider scheduling a screening mammogram exam one to two weeks after your period. Alternatively, some women find relief by taking acetaminophen before the exam. If patients are seen at an accredited breast center by well-trained technologists, positioning in the mammography machine lasts a few seconds per image. Those few moments can be potentially life saving.
Myth 2: Mammograms expose women to dangerous radiation
Dr. Hui: The radiation dose from mammography is minimal, though it should still be utilized judiciously. In relative terms, radiation exposure from a mammogram is equivalent to the background radiation from living on Earth for 1.5 months. Advances in digital mammography technology continue to lower radiation dose to the breast by reducing the number of mammogram images required.
Myth 3: Mammograms are pointless if you have dense breast tissue
Dr. Hui: Dense breast tissue is an independent risk factor for breast cancer and women with dense breast tissue should still get a screening mammogram. In some case these women may need further tests to provide a complete picture of the breast tissue. Although dense breast tissue may make the interpretation of mammography more challenging, many cancers are still detected. With the Federal Drug Administration’s 2011approval of digital tomosynthesis — also known as “3-D” mammography — many of the mammographic limitations are overcome.
Myth 4: Regular mammograms are only important if you have a family history of breast cancer
Dr. Hui: While family history of breast cancer increases lifetime risk, the majority of breast cancer cases in the U.S. occur in women without a strong family history of breast cancer. In fact, 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease and are not considered high risk. Therefore, it is important for all women age 40 and over to undergo annual breast cancer screening.
Myth 5: I do monthly breast exams so I don’t need a mammogram
Dr. Hui: It is important for a woman to become familiar with the way her breasts normally look and feel, and the Carol Milgard Breast Center endorses breast self-exams (BSEs). However, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force has issued a statement that breast self-examination is not recommended as a reliable screening tool because some breast cancers may not be clinically evident through this exam.
Our radiology team endorses three strategies: monthly BSEs, annual clinical breast examinations by your provider, and annual screening mammograms. The purpose of screening mammography is to detect breast cancers earlier when they are small and before they are can be palpated, or detected, through physical examination. Cancers that are palpable are usually larger in size when they are diagnosed, which may lead to different treatment and potentially a worse outcome.