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It’s that time of year when we start to see a lot of pink — a reminder for women to get to know their bodies, practice awareness, and schedule a screening mammogram to check for breast cancer.
Breast cancer is still the most common cancer diagnosed in women. About 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes. In the midst of a difficult diagnosis, there is great reason to hope as the majority of these women will be cured of the disease. The main reason for this high survival rate is early detection through mammograms.
“Mammograms save lives,” said Dr. Phoebe Freer, a breast imaging specialist at Huntsman Cancer Institute and associate professor of radiology at the University of Utah. “Yearly screening mammograms for women age 40 and over can detect small breast cancers and increase a woman’s overall chance of survival.”
Freer says there are two types of mammograms: annual screening mammograms for women with no symptoms and diagnostic mammograms for women with symptoms that might warrant a closer look.
Women can get a referral from their family health care provider or OB/GYN, although a screening mammogram doesn’t require it. Most insurance plans cover the procedure as a preventive screening for women age 40 and older. Mammograms typically take only a few minutes for a radiology technologist to take X-ray pictures of each breast. It is quick, and most women feel only a little discomfort as their breast tissue is pressed for the image.
No need to wait: Get same-day results
Immediate results are available at many University of Utah Health locations, including Huntsman Cancer Institute, South Jordan Health Center, and Farmington Health Center. “The radiologist looks at the screening mammogram and gives you results on the spot. If you need additional imaging, we can do it at that same time,” said Freer.
Most health systems do not offer immediate results. At many clinics, a woman leaves without knowing. She must wait to get results in the mail if everything looked normal, or get called back if the radiologist sees something suspicious.
What if they find something?
Women who have a finding on their screening mammogram or those who have symptoms of breast cancer will go one step further and get diagnostic tests. The most common symptoms are a lump or thickening in the breast, nipple discharge or puckering in the skin.
The type of diagnostic tests done depend on what images a patient already has and what symptoms she is experiencing. It could mean more mammography, additional 3-D mammography images, a breast ultrasound, an MRI or even a biopsy.
Keep in mind that if a woman has symptoms or the radiologist sees something suspicious on a screening mammogram, it isn’t necessarily bad news.
“If there’s something on the initial screening mammogram that requires additional diagnostic pictures, 90 percent of those women are cleared and can go back to routine screening next year,” Freer said. “A lot of times if they feel a lump, even if it’s a new lump increasing in size, we’re able to tell them it’s just regular breast tissue. Other times we may find a breast cyst, which is just a pocket of fluid in the breast and doesn’t require any other evaluation except to document it.”
There are also benign lumps, and in those cases, the doctor may recommend follow up every six months for two years. If no additional findings or changes are identified, routine screening resumes.
But is it safe?
Mammography does expose women to a small dose of radiation. This causes some patients to wonder whether that exposure increases the risk of developing breast cancer, but with the latest technology, the risk is very small.
“For any screening, the test itself has to demonstrate minimal harm and it has to be performed to identify a disease that is detectable and treatable; mammograms qualify for those criteria. The benefits far outweigh the risk,” Freer said.
For most women, the biggest hurdle to getting regular screening mammograms is simply not making the time to get it done.
“A lot of our clinics take walk-ins, although it is better to officially schedule your mammogram,” said Freer. If you’ve had prior mammograms at another location, scheduling in advance allows the facility to request those images ahead of time. “We can detect subtle changes better and potentially pick up breast cancer easier than if we didn’t have those prior exams for comparison,” she added.
Freer also cautions against waiting or ignoring the importance of screening mammograms.
“Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah Health physicians recommend yearly screening beginning at age 40 for average-risk women,” Freer said. “The majority of women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease, but those that do should begin screening earlier and receive genetic testing.”
If you’re a woman over 40 and you haven’t been in for a screening mammogram, October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — is the perfect time to schedule an appointment and take action.