For women, going for a mammogram stirs up a variety of emotions. We're afraid of getting breast cancer — for many it is the disease we fear most. But we dislike the discomfort of getting a mammogram and we have concerns about its accuracy.
This leads us to wonder:
Are mammograms our only option for breast cancer screening?
The short answer is that it is best option we currently have, though mammography is not perfect.
"Early detection is not prevention, it's finding cancers that are already there. And it doesn't work very well in young women because young women have dense breasts on a mammogram. So, the breast tissue is white and the cancer is white so it's like looking for a polar bear in the snow," said Dr. Susan Love, surgeon and breast cancer activist. (1)
She went on to explain that once a woman goes through menopause, breast tissue changes from being able to produce milk to becoming predominately fat.
This makes detection of malignant tumors much easier and mammograms become “a great tool,” Love said.
These findings led to the changes in mammogram recommendations by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
They “recommend biennial screening mammography for women 50-74 years.”
Women younger or older should follow guidance from their health practitioners, and make personal decisions about the benefits and harms of mammograms based on their own individual risks. (2)
What about breast self-exams?
For many years, we were encouraged to give ourselves breast self-exams monthly.
But, according to Susan G. Komen, the evidence does not support the idea that breast self-exams contribute to early detection and increased survival.
“Women who did BSE had more false positive results, leading to nearly twice as many biopsies with benign (not cancer) results as women who did not do BSE.” (3)
However, you know your own breasts so if you want to continue, do so. No one is going to stop you.