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Breast Exams and Mammograms: What You Need to Know

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Most people know that 40 is the new 30 and that it also marks the beginning - for some - of being a cougar. But 40 is also the age that women need to start getting mammograms done. If you're familiar with the mammogram - kudos to you! If you're not, here are a few basics that will help you know a little more about the best way to take care of your body and health.

There are many factors that affect one's risk of getting breast cancer (PDF). These factors may include your age, whether your family has a history of breast or ovarian cancer, your race (there are more incidences of breast cancer among white women than any race, but black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than any other race), your childbearing history (women who have not birthed children or who birth children in their 30s or 40s are at a higher risk), using hormone replacement therapy and your personal history with the disease.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the fifth leading cause of death for women while heart disease remains number one. Given all this, it's important for women to have regular mammograms, which are used to help detect early signs of breast cancer.

A mammography machine is used to take two different x-rays views of each breast. If you're trying to get a visual of the experience, your breast will get placed on a plastic plate and is pressed with another plate above her breast. It can hurt sometimes, though the pain will subside quickly, and is usually just uncomfortable for a few minutes because of the pressure. Be sure to ask your doctor any questions you may have, and inform them of any surgery that you've had done to your breasts.

If you're still in your 20s, you should learn about and consider performing breast self-exams. While this is by no means a replacement for x-ray detection, it's good to have a regular way of checking if your breasts feel different.

Add a Comment5 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

I totally agree on SBE. I found my lump and was lucky. Stage one, MRMast with A/C x4. It's been eight years this month. I stress SBE to my daughters and to have a mammo at 25. My oldest is now 29, at 25 the diagnostic center she went to refuesed to do a mammo. Her doctor was livid. It was the center he had his own office with. She did have it done. And now my little one is 25 and looking forward to her mammo. Do you believe that!!!

October 5, 2009 - 9:20am
(reply to Anonymous)

Anon, congratulations for being so proactive about your own health and that of your daughters'. Your story is awesome. I'm sure that when you found your lump you were terrified -- many women are so scared that they don't do self-exams for FEAR that they'll find something. But it's only through finding it that you can do something about it. You are living proof. Thank you for writing!

October 6, 2009 - 8:20am
HERWriter Guide

Nina - I was glad to see your article on mammograms, an absolute must for women once they reach 40. Sometimes, however, the age recommendation is interpreted as meaning breast cancer can't occur until after age 40, which of course isn't true. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my 30's I was told over and over that I was "too young" or got reactions like "I can't believe it, at your age?" I was fortunate to have exceptional medical treatment and a full recovery. Today an annual mammogram is a must for me - I usually have a diagnostic mammogram because of my history. I'm not posting this information to scare women under 40, I just wanted to say that as women, of any age, we need to take responsibility for meeting our own healthcare needs, no matter what "they" may say about the situation we're in and go forward. If you have a family history of breast cancer, or other reasons to believe you need a mammogram even through you're under 40, then by all means do what you think is in your best interest. I did, and am proof positive that standing up for your own healthcare needs is the best route to take.

September 30, 2009 - 5:36pm

Thanks for this comment, Susan. And I feel you on the "cougar" pet peeve - I can't believe how ingrained the phrase has become into popular culture! But I guess everyone has their own labels for describing themselves right?

And thanks for sharing your experience about your mammogram! Good to know it won't suck up your entire day.

September 30, 2009 - 11:39am
HERWriter Guide


Thanks for this post! (I'll even forgive you for the "cougar" thing! Pet peeve alert!)

I am 39 and have a mammogram every year, I just got my (good) result back. I hope all women know that it's a very fast (under five minutes) procedure and nothing more uncomfortable than getting a bit squished for a few seconds. A person is in and out in minutes.

Self breast exams are still the most important thing, in my opinion. Most women find their own lumps first - more good news is that most lumps are harmless. However, for those that are not, the faster the treatment, the better. With cancer, as with most conditions, time is of the essence.

September 30, 2009 - 11:30am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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