News headlines continue to bring questions, confusion and controversy to the topic of whether mammogram testing should be performed and, if so, at what age. Also at question are whether screening mammograms are too high risk for carriers of the breast cancer genetic mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2. Dr. Lida Mina, co-director of the Breast Cancer High Risk Program, at the IU Health Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center helps us make sense of the confusion.
What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is a series of x-rays taken of the breast to look for and evaluate breast changes. There are two types of mammograms. A screening mammogram is an x-ray of the breast in a person who has no signs or symptoms of breast cancer. A diagnostic mammogram is an x-ray of the breast in someone who has had a breast problem, such as finding a lump or having nipple discharge. Diagnostic mammograms are also performed as a result of finding a breast change during a screening mammogram.
Understanding the risks
All mammograms require a small amount of radiation. The exposure to the radiation in a diagnostic mammogram is slightly higher, because a diagnostic mammogram takes longer than a screening mammogram. However, in most cases, the benefits of finding cancer early outweigh the risks associated with testing.
What age should you consider a mammogram?
The American Cancer Society recommends receiving a mammogram annually after the age of 40, but mutation carriers should receive their first mammogram at the age of 30. Dr. Mina encourages medical professionals to use their best clinical judgment when ordering radiologic tests for those with BRCA1 or BRCA2. She goes on to say that physicians at the IU Health Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center have recognized this increased risk and choose to monitor those at high risk of breast cancer with breast MRI and avoid radiation if at all possible.
Women should develop a trusting, open relationship with their physician and be able to freely discuss their bodies, their symptoms, or any tests that may be needed. Women also need to let their physician know of any family history of cancer so that monitoring can begin at an earlier age. And the most important advice from Dr. Mina? “Women can actively reduce their risk of breast cancer by limiting alcohol, maintaining a normal weight and avoid smoking.”