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Sharp Health News

3 things to know about breast cancer and mammography

Oct. 17, 2019

3 things to know about breast cancer and mammography
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the U.S. While mammography is one of the best ways to identify cancer in the breast, many women skip or postpone these regular screenings, putting them at higher risk for more advanced cancers.

“Mammograms are important,” says Dr. Marilyn Norton, a hematologist/oncologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “They use low-dose radiation to detect breast cancer at a very early stage, which increases the odds that treatment will shrink tumors and prevent the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body.”

While recommendations on screening frequency vary, it’s important for all women to understand their own personal risk factors and, together with their doctors, select a screening schedule that makes sense for them.

Here are three things doctors want you to know about breast cancer and mammography:

1. Understand your personal risk factors.

“You are at increased risk for breast cancer based on your family cancer history and having prior abnormal breast biopsies,” says Dr. Norton. Women should talk with their doctor about these risk factors:

  • Age — Approximately 80% of breast cancers are diagnosed in women over age 50. However, 11% of all new cases in the United States occur in women under 45, so younger women should not put off screening for this reason.

  • Known genetic mutations — Approximately 30% of all breast and ovarian cancer cases are caused by genetic mutations, including BRCA1 and BRCA2. A recently discovered gene, PALB2, may increase the risk of breast cancer in younger women.

  • Personal or family history — Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) with breast or ovarian cancer can increase risk of breast cancer.

  • Dense breast tissue — Mammograms of denser breasts are harder for a radiologist to interpret than mammograms of fatty breasts, because the breast tissue may obscure lesions of interest. Approximately half of women have dense breast tissue. Depending on individual risk factors, additional screening might be needed.
Other risk factors include:

  • A history of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • Obesity
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Alcohol and tobacco use
  • Early menstruation
  • Late menopause
  • Pregnancy after age 30
  • Lack of breastfeeding

2. Learn the proper way to check for lumps at home.

While self-checks are not a replacement for regular mammograms, Dr. Norton says, “It is important to perform your own monthly breast exam and let your doctor know of any changes that you may notice, as additional testing, other than mammograms, may be needed.”

  • Self-checks are best done in the shower, a few days to a week after a woman’s period. Women who no longer have periods should pick a day that’s easy to remember, such as the first day of the month.

3. Know that getting a mammogram shouldn’t be scary.

Although women sometimes dread them, mammograms are quick and relatively painless. The most common concerns are:

  • Being called back for additional screening — Roughly 1 in 10 women who have a mammogram are called back for additional testing. This does not mean a woman has cancer. Oftentimes, the imaging results are unclear or doctors want to get another view of a benign mass.

  • Pain — A mammogram requires compression of the breast tissue, which can be uncomfortable but should not be painful. To reduce discomfort, women can avoid caffeine, reduce their stress and anxiety before the procedure, and schedule their mammogram in the week before their period.
“The thought of having cancer is scary,” says Dr. Norton, “but breast cancer is easily detected and highly treatable. Talk with your doctor about your risk, and what you can do about it.”

Learn more about mammography at Sharp.

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