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Busting mammography myths

People avoid mammograms for all kinds of reasons, maybe a lack of knowledge, insurance or access. But often their decision to put off getting screened for breast cancer isn’t based in fact. Before we dive into mammography myths, let's talk about what a mammography is.

What is a mammogram?

A mammagraphy is the best tool we have available to detect breast cancer early. There is a standard mammography where your breasts are compressed between two panels while an X-ray is taken to get a clear image of the breast tissue. The 3-D mammography, or tomosynthesis, is where a camera moves in an arc over the breast taking a series of images. Read more about breast cancer screening in Breasts are 3 dimensional, and now is your mammogram.

Nine mammogram myths:

  1. Mammograms don’t help. In truth, mammograms save lives. A 2018 study found that women who participated in a breast cancer screening program had a 60 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer in the 10 years after diagnosis than women who weren’t screened. Yet, only 65 percent of American women eligible for screening mammography have had an exam in the past two years.
  2. I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, so I don’t need to be screened. According to the American Cancer Society, 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history of breast cancer.
  3. Mammograms cause cancer. We are exposed to natural sources of radiation, such as radon, solar, cosmic and others, just by virtue of living on the earth. Mammography uses a very low-dose of radiation, about the equivalent of seven weeks of exposure to background radiation, and there is no evidence that breast compression causes cancer.
  4. Mammograms hurt.  Compression separates the breast tissue allowing the radiologist to see small abnormalities better. For most women, compression feels tight but is bearable because it only lasts a short time. Talk to your technologist if it becomes too uncomfortable.
  5. Women with breast implants should not have a mammogram. Please inform your technologist that you have breast implants so adjustments can be made to how the images are taken.
  6. Transgender women don’t need a mammogram. Screening for transgender women is recommended if they are taking or have taken estrogen and progestin for five years or more, if they are obese or have a family history of breast cancer. Please talk with your doctor.
    • All lumps are cancer. Most lumps are not cancer, but only your doctor can help you make this distinction. If you find a lump, check with your doctor.
    • Mammograms are unreliable. Mammograms are the best way to detect breast cancer and can find it two to three years before it can be felt on a manual breast examination.
    • I don’t need to start thinking about mammograms until I’m at least 50. When to start having mammograms and how often to have them is a personal decision that you and your provider should make together.

      When to get a mammogram

      We recommend the following guidelines for women who have an average risk for breast cancer, based on American Cancer Society guidelines:
      • Age 40 to 44: Mammograms are optional.
      • Age 45 to 54: Have a mammogram every year.
      • Age 55 and older: Have a mammogram every year, or transition to having one every two years. Continue to have mammograms as long as your health is good.

    If you have a higher than average risk for breast cancer, your doctor may recommend a different schedule. Talk to your doctor about your risk level. Together, you can decide what screening schedule is right for you.


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