As many of you are aware, October is breast cancer awareness month. We all are women or have women in our lives that we know and love so I thought it would be the perfect time to share some information on mammography that I found.
First, some background information. Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in Canadian women. In 2006, there will be an estimated 21,600 new cases in women aged 20+ and 5,300 deaths from breast cancer in Canada. About 11% of Canadian women (one in nine) will get breast cancer at some point in their lives. The risk of developing breast cancer increases as women get older.
When breast cancer is detected early through a mammogram, there are better treatment options and a greater chance for a successful recovery.
Mammography is an imaging technique that uses X-rays to provide a picture of the internal structure of the breast. Mammograms can be done for diagnostic or screening purposes.
Diagnostic: Your doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram if you have a symptom that needs to be investigated, such as a lump in your breast.
Screening: This type of mammogram looks for signs that breast cancer may be developing, even though you have no symptoms.
Mammography as a Screening Tool
The X-ray images used in mammography can show abnormal growths or changes in breast tissue before they can be felt. In addition to detecting breast cancer in its early stages, mammography is also an effective way to determine that women do not have breast cancer. This makes mammography the best tool available to screen for breast cancer in women.
Mammography is the only technique proven to be safe and effective in screening for breast cancer, and mammography equipment is the only imaging technique licensed by Health Canada for breast cancer screening.
If a suspicious lesion shows up on a mammogram, other techniques – such as ultrasound, biopsy magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and laser scanning – may be used for further investigation. However, none of these other techniques is recommended for screening purposes at this time.
New technologies, such as thermal scanning (thermography), are being evaluated to see if they are safe and effective. Claims that thermography is useful in diagnosing breast cancer have not been proven, and thermography equipment has not been licensed for breast cancer screening in Canada.
When to have a Mammogram
Many doctors and screening programs recommend screening mammograms every two years for women who are 50 to 69 years old. Studies show that regular screening mammograms can reduce deaths from breast cancer by as much as one-third for women in this age group.
There have been studies about whether regular screening mammograms would also be beneficial for women outside the 50 to 69 age-range. To date, the evidence is not conclusive.
If you have a family history of breast cancer (mother, sister, daughter), or have had a breast biopsy that showed abnormal cells, this may indicate an increased susceptibility to breast cancer. Your doctor will recommend mammograms at intervals based on your particular needs even if you are outside the 50-69 age range.
Also, your doctor will recommend a mammogram if there is reason to suspect that you may have breast cancer, for example, if you or your doctor discover a lump in your breast.
During a mammogram, the X-ray technologist uses special equipment to compress your breast tissue to get as clear a picture as possible. This may cause some temporary discomfort, but it is usually not severe.
A radiologist will assess the X-ray images and forward the results to your doctor. Some breast cancer screening programs may contact you directly with the results.
Most screening mammograms come back with normal results. If your mammogram shows there are lumps in your breast, but they are not cancerous, it is important to monitor the lumps so if there is a change in the breast tissue you can see a doctor immediately. If there is a cause for concern, your doctor will recommend next steps, including more tests.
Mammography and Radiation
The risk of getting cancer from a mammogram is extremely low. An X-ray machine is used for the mammogram and the radiation dose with a mammogram is quite low. Your body can usually repair the few cells that might be damaged by the X-rays. The benefit of early diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer far outweighs the risk of the small amount of radiation received during a mammogram.
Minimizing Your Risk
There is plenty of evidence that early detection and treatment of breast cancer saves lives.
All women should talk to their doctor about the risk of getting breast cancer. This is especially important for women with a family history of early onset breast cancer; if this is your situation, you may benefit from having mammograms, as well as genetic screening.
Women who are 50 to 69 years of age should have screening mammograms every two years. Ask your doctor about this or contact a breast cancer screening program in your province or territory.
Remember, mammography is the only imaging technique proven to be safe and effective for breast cancer screening. Do not take a chance with your health by relying on unproven, alternative technologies to screen for breast cancer.
“Normal image” photo credit – RadiologyInfo.org
Disclaimer - The material provided on this site is designed for information and educational purposes only. The materials are not intended to be a self diagnostic and/or self treatment tool. I encourage you to use this information as a tool for discussing your condition and/or concerns with your health practitioner.