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After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States, according to breastcancer.org. An estimated one in eight women develop invasive breast cancer (that is, breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast) in her lifetime. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death for women.

But there is good news. Survival rates for breast cancer are high, especially when the cancer is found before it spreads. It is estimated that 99 percent of women diagnosed with localized breast cancer live at least five years. And your overall chances of surviving breast cancer continue to increase.

To find cancer early, you need to look for it. All women should get a mammogram at some point in their lives. A mammogram is an imaging test that screens for breast cancer. Early detection of breast cancer saves lives. So when should you start getting one?

If you or a loved one has breast cancer, the Magee-Womens Breast Cancer Program of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides complete and compassionate care. Learn more about our services.

What Is a Mammogram?

A screening mammogram is an x-ray of your breast. You will be asked to put your breast on a platform. The machine applies pressure, squeezing your breast. It can be a little uncomfortable, but the machine only squeezes your breast for a few seconds each time. The entire mammogram takes about 20 minutes.

A screening mammogram looks for tumors too small to feel and lumps or lesions that could be breast cancer. You should get regular mammograms to screen for breast cancer. You should also get a mammogram if you find a lump in your breast on your own.

When Should I Start Getting a Mammogram?

The American Cancer Society recommends these guidelines:

  • Women aged 40 to 44 can choose if or when they begin annual screenings. Women who have a higher risk of developing breast cancer should consider this option.
  • Women aged 45 to 54 should have a screening mammogram once a year.
  • Women aged 55 and older should have a mammogram every other year if they are at average risk. Women who are at high risk should continue with annual mammograms.

The American Society of Breast Surgeons (ASBrS) recommends a slightly more aggressive schedule, suggesting that all women begin mammogram screenings at age 40. Women should continue to get a mammogram regularly until their life expectancy is likely less than 10 years.

Women at higher risk of developing breast cancer should start screening at age 40 or earlier. Factors that may put you at higher risk include:

  • A family history of breast cancer
  • A known genetic mutation
  • Radiation to the chest wall

In addition, Black women have a higher risk of developing breast cancer before age 40.

Because there are many other risks for breast cancer, ASBrS recommends that all women have a formal risk assessment by age 30. A risk assessment can help you decide when you should start getting a mammogram.

What Else Should I Know?

A mammogram doesn’t always provide a clear picture for women with dense breasts, so cancer could go undetected. If you have dense breast tissue, your doctor may recommend additional imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound. This offers more visibility into the breast tissue to look for signs of cancer.

As with any screening test, mammograms do have a risk of false positives. This means the scan sees an area that looks like cancer, but it turns out to be benign. That can lead to anxiety and additional procedures, such as biopsy or further imaging. However, the rate of false positives is low. And the benefits of early detection outweigh those risks. Still, it’s best to talk to your doctor about the benefits and limitations of screening mammography.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help to keep your risk of cancer low. Also, be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel. Keep an eye out for lumps, puckered skin, or changes to your nipples. If you notice any changes, let your doctor know. Finding cancer early provides the best chance for successful treatment.

If you are over 40 years old, a prescription is not required for a screening mammography.

Breastcancer.org. U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics. https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

American Cancer Society. Survival Rates for Breast Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/understanding-a-breast-cancer-diagnosis/breast-cancer-survival-rates.html

American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines. https://www.cancer.org/research/infographics-gallery/breast-cancer-screening-guideline.html

National Cancer Institute. Mammograms. https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/mammograms-fact-sheet