Maybe your physician advised you to schedule a mammogram, but you’ve put it off based on something you read or heard, which convinced you that the test isn’t necessary. However, nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding mammograms, and it’s important to separate facts from fiction.
In short, most experts continue to agree that women should have mammograms performed at the frequency recommended by a physician (in general, women aged 40 and older should be screened annually). This strategy can greatly increase the likelihood of detecting breast cancer in its earliest stages, when more treatment options are available, and a patient is more likely to achieve a better outcome and quality of life.
Here are some common myths about mammograms that you should be aware of, along with the pertinent clarifying information:
Myth: Yearly mammograms are unnecessary unless a woman has a family history of breast cancer or is experiencing symptoms.
Facts: In the vast majority of cases, breast cancer is caused by spontaneous cellular changes that are completely unrelated to genetics. Furthermore, breast cancer usually does not produce any symptoms, such as a palpable lump, until the condition progresses to an advanced stage. Mammography can often detect cancerous changes before any symptoms develop.
Myth: Mammograms involve harmful radiation exposure.
Facts: While mammography does involve the use of radiation, the level of exposure is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies, and falls well within medical guidelines that were established to ensure patient safety. For perspective, the radiation dose from a mammogram is approximately equivalent to two months of “background” radiation (the level of radiation within the environment that most people are exposed to on a daily basis).
Myth: Mammograms are painful.
Facts: Of course, pain is relative, and everyone has a different tolerance level. But, most women find that any discomfort they experience – which is usually related to the compression of the breast tissue or the cold temperature of the machine – is mild and fleeting. For increased comfort, many women schedule their appointments during the week after a menstrual period ends, when their breasts are usually less tender.
Myth: If any cancer is present, a mammogram is guaranteed to detect it.
Fact: Even though mammography is a highly sophisticated technology, it has certain limitations. For instance, cancerous changes may be concealed by dense breast tissue, which can look very similar to a breast mass in a mammogram image. For this reason, other imaging technologies, such as ultrasound, MRI and 3-D mammography, may be recommended for a woman who has dense breasts.
Myth: If a mammogram shows no signs of cancer, no further mammograms are necessary.
Facts: While a normal mammogram result is good news, it is not a guarantee that a woman will never develop breast cancer. Mammography is a screening tool, and its effectiveness depends largely on its regular performance. This provides a basis for comparison, allowing a medical professional to detect changes that occur over time.
With all of that said, the decision on whether – and how frequently – to be screened for breast cancer is highly personal, and one that every woman has a right to make for herself. In all cases, though, the best strategy is for a woman to be well-informed and seek the advice of a trusted physician.
If you have questions or would like to have a mammogram, you can come to Moffitt Cancer Center with or without a referral. To get started, call 1-888-MOFFITT or complete our new patient registration form online.