Breast cancer screenings: simple and usually uneventful

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hands-ribbonsBreast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer for women in the United States and you are probably seeing a sea of “pink ribbon” initiatives for breast cancer awareness month in October. Awareness of the risks — and the importance of mammograms as a screening tool — are fantastic, but there can be some confusion about when to start screening for breast cancer.

Recently, a reporter conducted “woman on the street” interviews in Hampton Roads to find out what women in Hampton Roads know about current recommendations for mammograms. Here are some of the answers:

“I heard that you should do it when you turn 40. But then I also heard maybe you could wait until 45?”

“I guess I’ll do it whenever my doctor tells me to.”

“I was afraid because people said it hurt so I waited until next year, and then the year after that.”

“I’m not sure about the statistics of which ethnic groups are at higher risks.”

With the recent change in national recommendations about mammograms from the American Cancer Society and disagreement from other professional groups like the American College of Radiology and the American College of Surgeons, it can be hard to keep things straight.

Here’s what health care professionals want you to keep in mind:

A Variety of Risk Factors

“At age 40, all women should have the conversation with their doctor about when would be a good age for them to begin screening,” said Dr. Kelley Allison, a radiologist with Sentara Cancer Network on the Peninsula.

Screening mammograms, starting at age 40, are not done just to establish a baseline. These screenings are to look for cancers that could already be present. Women can develop cancer in their 40s.  In fact, in a two-year period (2013-2015), there were 577 women aged 40-49 were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Hearing blanket statements of recommendations by age group shouldn’t replace personalized advice from a healthcare professional. There are many factors, including:

  • Personal health history
  • Current health status
  • Family health history
  • Age of first menstrual period
  • Age of first childbirth
  • Breastfeeding history
  • Lifestyle habits
  • Current health conditions
  • Environmental risks

“Women should start mammogram screening at age of 40 with regular breast exam with their primary care physician,” according to Dr. Feroze, an internal medicine physician with Sentara Medical Group in Williamsburg. “Be an advocate for yourself, your family, your friends, and encourage them to get regular breast cancer screenings. Mammograms save lives.”

Screenings: Simple and Usually Uneventful

“There are a lot of myths related to breast cancer risks. The best way to know when to screen is to talk to your doctor,” said Dr. Terryl Times, a board-certified surgeon with Sentara Surgery Specialists in Williamsburg who often performs breast cancer surgery.

It can be hard to convince people without family history or symptoms to be screened, but 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no significant family history, which means more than half of people with breast cancer may not be on the lookout for symptoms.

breast-imageOut of 1,000 women screened, just five will be diagnosed with breast cancer. For 9 out of 10 people, this is just a simple test and they are relieved that nothing has been found. Screenings are part of preventive cancer care and effective in alerting people who currently have a small, early-stage cancer in their body. When breast cancer is found through mammography, the cure rate is very high. For people who do have cancer, this can be a life-saving step on the road to treating cancer.

Low Risk, Early Detection

Mammograms are easy to schedule and are accessible throughout Hampton Roads. The Affordable Care Act requires health plans, including those sold on the healthcare exchange, to include annual screening mammograms without copay or deductible for women 40 and older. For women who do not have insurance, there are grant programs to cover costs.

An abnormal mammogram may cause anxiety but most women (61 out of 1,000) have additional imaging and find nothing is wrong.

“If we do see a mammogram and notice an abnormality or something we think we need to clarify, that woman will be called back to do additional testing, which often times means a few additional pictures. This happens about 10 percent of the time, most of which turn out to be normal. Women should not fear having that mammogram,” said Dr. Allison. “Most of my job is to reassure women that they are OK.”

If there’s something found, there are a number of treatment options which work best when tumors are caught early. Talk to your doctor about when you should get a mammogram, and how often. There are good reasons to take the time to discuss this, and to engage in preventive care to stay ahead of any potential cancer risks.

Most importantly, follow this advice of a breast cancer survivor who spoke with us during “women on the street” interviews. She had been putting off her mammograms for several years and now is an advocate for others to have their mammograms. She wanted other women to know that they should be empowered to take care of themselves:  “Go do it. Be very aware of your body.”