• how often should you get tested?
• why should you get tested?
• what to expect from the test
• what the results mean
• more information
Most experts recommend annual mammograms for women 50 and over. There is still some disagreement about how often women in their forties should get tested. The American Cancer Society recommends an annual mammogram. The National Cancer Institute and the American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommend mammograms every one to two years.
However, women who are at higher risk of breast cancer -- from a family or personal history of the disease, for instance, or from carrying a "breast cancer gene" -- should seek medical advice about whether to begin screening before age 40.
Why the disagreement? For one thing, studies have given mixed results as to whether routine screening in women in their forties actually saves lives. On the other hand, there's evidence that most of the cancers detected by annual mammograms in these women are in the early stages. This is no small matter, considering that tumors may grow faster in premenopausal women.
Mammography is a low-dose X-ray that screens for breast cancer and non-cancerous breast disease. Though the test is not error-free, the American Cancer Society considers it the most effective screening method for breast cancer because it is has much greater sensitivity for detecting cancer than either clinical or self breast exams . Studies show it reduces deaths from breast cancer by at least 30 percent in women aged 50 and older.
On the day of your mammogram, don't wear any powder, cream, or deodorant on your upper body, as it can interfere with the X-rays. You will take off clothes and jewelry from the waist up. Your breasts will be pressed between glass plates and X-rays will be taken.
The procedure takes from 15 to 30 minutes and can be done in a doctor's office, a hospital, or an X-ray lab. The process can be uncomfortable, especially if your breasts are tender, so it's best not to schedule the test the week before your period. Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever an hour before the exam can help.
Your X-rays will be studied for any abnormalities. Fatty tissues show up black on the film; glands, connective tissue, and tumors appear white. In women with dense breasts (about 40 percent of women) or those who have had prior breast surgery, it can be hard to distinguish abnormalities.
Abnormal results can be signs of malignant tumors or benign cysts. Positive results are generally verified by biopsy.
For information on where to get a mammography in your area, contact your local office of the American Cancer Society at 800/ACS-2345. You can also visit the Cancer Society's. The National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service provides a toll-free number to verify if a mammography lab is FDA certified. That number is: 800/4-CANCER.