Mammogram Effectiveness & Risks
Mammogram is still the most highly recommended scan for increasing the rates of early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms can show almost all kinds of breast cancer, and they are more specifically tuned to see tumors that are in fact cancerous. Other scans may produce more false-positives and therefore more unnecessary biopsies.
While the increased use of mammograms has lead to an increase of early detection of breast cancer, there are some doctors that are concerned about the use of mammograms. There is a chance that having annual mammograms will actually increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Women who are exposed to x-rays are at a higher risk of developing cancer, and mammograms are x-rays.
Additionally, in July of 2011 a study released showed that mammograms miss 20% of cancers in women. The study also determined that high rates of false positives also come from mammograms, especially with CAD technology, which allows doctors to view the mammogram digitally.
While annual mammograms are recommended for women over 40, there is a good chance that that many annual mammograms will do a lot of harm and perhaps less good than previously understood.
Mammogram vs. Ultrasound
Ultrasound technology uses virtually harmless sound waves to see inside the body. Most people know about ultrasounds because they are used to see unborn babies inside a woman’s womb. Ultrasounds allow a doctor to see what is happening in real time, and they are used to conduct biopsies because the doctor can see what is inside the breast and see where their biopsy needle is in relation to a growth.
The primary reason that mammogram is recommended over ultrasound for breast cancer detection is that ultrasounds can in fact see more and see it better than mammograms. That may sound backwards, but the concern is that with an ultrasound a women is more likely to have a false-positive. This means that a women may have a biopsy and find out that the growth is not cancerous. As more studies are released to show that false positives with mammograms are also common, it may turn out that an ultrasound is the better option.
Mammogram vs. MRI
These days, specialists in MRI scans for breast cancer can get the best imaging available for detection of breast cancer. The same problems exist as with ultrasound and mammogram: MRIs can produce many false positives and unnecessary biopsies. Additionally, MRI scans are very expensive. An MRI may not have the same negative effects as a mammogram, as mammograms are x-rays and are known to be harmful with overuse, however the price difference is significant.
How Often Should I Get a Mammogram?
Women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer should be screened annually starting when they are 40 years of age. The option of having a mammogram or an ultrasound may be an important decision, especially if your risk factors include high exposure to radiation as a child due to childhood cancer. Ultrasound is essentially harmless and should be considered for women who are at a high risk of developing breast cancer, as well as those who do not have high risk factors.
Women who are not at a high risk of developing breast cancer are recommended to have a mammogram once every two years starting at the age of 40, increasing to once per year after the age of 50. If a women prefers, she can probably have an ultrasound instead. Ask your doctor about the relative benefits of an ultrasound and a mammogram, and ask about the relative risks.
The fact remains that the increase in early detection of breast cancer has probably had more to do with the increase in breast cancer awareness and the number of women conducting breast self exams than anything else. Knowing how to do a breast self exam and knowing what to do if you find a lump in your breast are the most important ways to detect breast cancer early and get prompt and effective treatment.
What Risk Factors Should I Be Aware of?
There are many things that can increase the likelihood that a woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Some of these are environmental, such as having had childhood cancer which was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. Other factors are genetic and can be screened for. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, or any other kind of cancer, getting screened will help to determine your risk factors.
Genetically effected cancers have to do with two genes, known as BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. These genes actually suppress the growth of cancer cells and therefore tumors. Everyone has cancer cells in their bodies, but the body is built to suppress those cells. In people who have a mutation of the BRCA 1 or 2 gene, the built in anticancer capabilities are reduced. If you have a mutation of the breast cancer genes, you should have annual screenings starting at age 40.
Another form of breast cancer is caused by hormone-receptor-positive cancer cells. This means that the cancer cells respond to hormones, estrogen and progesterone, by growing and reproducing, forming tumors. Women should be cautious of anything that increases the intake of estrogen, such as using estrogen to reduce the symptoms of menopause. Girls who start their period before the age of 12 and women who don’t have menopause until after the age of 55 are also at a much higher risk of developing hormone-receptor positive breast cancer.
No matter the risk factors, doing regular breast self exams and going for regularly scheduled screenings with your doctor are very important. Ask your doctor if you can have an ultrasound instead of a mammogram.