Mammograms are the gold standard for detecting breast cancer. Women should begin getting them annually starting at age 40, unless they have risk factors that indicate starting sooner. But mammograms can be uncomfortable, and women may avoid them out of fear of what they may reveal. Dr. Avice O’Connell, director of Women’s Imaging at UR Medicine, responds to common mammogram myths and says discomfort and fear should not keep you from being screened.
Myth: No one in my family has ever had breast cancer, so I don’t need to have a mammogram until I’m 50.
Fact: Three-quarters of women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease, and at least one-third of the breast cancers we see are in women who are in their 40s. Unless she has other risk factors, every woman should have a mammogram starting at age 40. We want to find breast cancer as early as possible to ensure the best possible outcome. You can’t think, “It won’t happen to me.”
Myth: I breastfed my children, so I don’t have to worry about breast cancer.
Fact: Breastfeeding is important, and we know it may likely be protective, but it is not enough. You still need to have a mammogram starting at age 40.
Myth: The radiation from mammograms causes cancer.
Fact: The amount of radiation conveyed by a mammogram is very small—about 0.5 millisieverts. In the United States, we are exposed to natural background radiation of 3 millisieverts. The benefit of finding a cancer early outweighs the very small risk that radiation presents.
Myth: If I get called back after my mammogram, I must have breast cancer.
Fact: Not necessarily. About 1 in 10 women who have a mammogram will be asked to come back to get additional images, and the likelihood is higher if it’s your first mammogram. Most of the time, we call women back because we need to clarify an area. With a mammogram, we’re compressing the breast to get a 2D image of a 3D breast, so we don’t always get a clear picture.
If you’re worried about being called back after your mammogram, you can schedule a longer appointment during which you wait while your images are read. If necessary, additional images can be taken on the same day.
Myth: A lump in my breast means I have cancer.
Fact: Not necessarily. A lot of women find that their breasts become lumpy during their period. Wait through your period to see if the lumps disappear. If they don’t, schedule a mammogram.
Lumps in the breast can be due to benign conditions, such as cysts, but always have them checked. If a lump is found to be malignant, the sooner you can start treatment, the better.
Myth: I can’t afford a mammogram. I don’t have health insurance to cover it.
Fact: Insurance status is not a barrier to getting a mammogram. If you are uninsured or underinsured, contact Outreach at Highland Breast Imaging at (585) 487-3304.
Avice M. O’Connell, M.D., is director of Women’s Imaging at UR Medicine and professor of Imaging Sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center.