We’ve all heard the message by now: regular mammograms can help save lives. Yet, according to the latest statistics from the Centers of Disease Control, only 67% of women who are 40 years or older had a mammogram in the previous two years.
“Mammography is the only test we have that’s proven to decrease a woman’s chance of dying of breast cancer,” Debra Monticciolo, MD, FACR, says. Monticciolo is a Professor of Radiology at Texas A&M College of Medicine, and Vice-chair for Research and Section Chief, Breast Imaging at Scott & White Healthcare in Temple, Texas.
But if a test can be so helpful, why do some women avoid it?
There are four common reasons that some women may put off having a mammogram, says Dana Aragon, RT, a mammogram technologist in Albuquerque, N.M.:
- Fear of pain from the exam,
- Misconceptions of radiation exposure from the exam,
- Fear of the unknown if they’ve not had a mammogram before, and
- Fear of what the mammogram may find.
Fear of mammogram pain
Are mammograms painful? Some women do find that that the examination hurts their breasts, particularly if they are premenopausal, and have tender breasts before and during their periods, says Monticciolo. But while anticipated pain may be one of the most common reasons women may give for avoiding a mammogram, it’s important for women to know that not everyone has pain during the test. And if they do, the pain, which is caused by compression of the breasts, lasts for a short time, Monticciolo reminds.
“A lot of women who haven’t had a mammogram don’t realize how brief it is,” she says. “Taking an x-ray picture takes only a few seconds. So the time that you’re in compression for the exam is very short and the whole exam should take less than 15 minutes.”
If you do have tender breasts or you’re worried that a mammogram may be painful, Aragon offers some tips that may help ease that worry:
- Premenopausal patients should schedule their mammogram appointment the week after their menstrual period for optimal comfort,
- Tell the technologist if your breasts are tender on the day of the examination,
- If caffeine makes your breasts sensitive, avoid it the day of your exam, and
- Speak to your doctor about possible pain control methods.
Radiation concern about mammograms
The amount of radiation used to do a mammogram is very small, much smaller than it was in the past. The amount of radiation that touches the rest of the body, called scatter radiation, is miniscule and does not cause any harm, Monticciolo says. A few years ago, some people were concerned about the rising number of thyroid cancer cases, and they said this was due to the increasing number of mammograms.
“But thyroid cancer is increasing in men as well as women in the same amount,” Monticciolo explains. “And men don’t get mammograms.” So she says that this isn’t something that women should be concerned about.
Fear of the unknown
Not knowing what to expect before an exam can be scary, especially if you’ve been hearing from others or reading online about experiences that other women have had.
“If a patient feels unsure about a mammogram, they should definitely talk to their physician,” Aragon says. “Also, let the mammographer know about any painful previous experiences with mammography and use the opportunity to provide feedback.”
Aragon suggests that women look at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists website, which offers a patient resource page that has information for patients on what to expect with all kinds of radiology exams including mammography.
Fear of what will be found
Not wanting to go for a test because of what it might show is not uncommon. But Monticciolo wants to reassure women that most mammograms don’t find anything.
“Most of the things we find in mammograms are innocent,” she says. “So 90% of the women get a normal reading. About 10% are asked to come back for maybe an ultrasound or additional views. Most turn out to be nothing.” Only between 1% and 1.5%, are referred on for biopsies.
“We try to reassure patients, if you’re called back, most of the time it’s going to be fine,” she explains.
The final message? Both Monticciolo and Aragon agree: Mammograms save lives. Make that appointment and go.
TapGenes Take Away: Mammograms are the only tests we have that’s proven to decrease a woman’s chance of dying of breast cancer.
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