You’ve probably heard a lot of talk in the past few years about cancer screening. What’s necessary, what’s not, and when do I start?

When Should I Get a Mammogram?

Women of average risk should begin annual screening mammograms at age 40, as recommended by the American College of Radiology and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This has been shown to save the most lives from breast cancer. Just as with any medical advice, a woman should discuss the risks and benefits of screening with her doctor.

Women at higher risk of breast cancer should talk to their doctor about starting screenings earlier. If you have certain risk factors, the ACS recommends you get a mammogram and an MRI every year.

Your doctor has a way to calculate if you’re at high risk of getting breast cancer, based mainly on family history. Factors that put you at higher risk include having:

  • A close family member with certain cancers
  • A known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
  • Radiation to your chest when you were younger
  • Certain syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni or Cowden

What Are the Types of Breast Cancer Screenings?

A mammogram is the most common type of breast cancer screening tool. It is an x-ray of your breasts. This screening tool has come a long way, and you may have traditional, digital, or 3D mammography.

A breast MRI may be done in addition to mammography to help screen for cancer. This is typically reserved as an added measure for women at high risk of cancer.

Are there Risks with Breast Cancer Screenings?

A mammogram is a painless procedure with minimal exposure to radiation. The screening test does not detect all cancers. Sometimes tumors are missed, especially in women with dense breast tissue.

On the other hand, a mammogram sometimes spots something abnormal, but it turns out not to be cancer. This leads to further testing and anxiety.

There’s also a concern that screening leads to over treatment and over diagnosis. Once cancer is found, it’s common to feel like you have to treat it. In many cases you do. However, there are times when cancer is present, and it never becomes life-threatening. Doctors can’t tell which ones will spread and which ones won’t. That’s why most people opt for treatment.

In general, the risks of mammography are all pretty low, and don’t outweigh the benefit of getting a mammogram. The earlier you catch breast cancer, the more treatment options are open to you, and the better your chances of recovery.

Always talk with your doctor about your risk and when is best for you to begin annual screening.

To learn more about breast cancer screening or to schedule an appointment for your mammogram, visit the Magee-Womens Imaging website.