Health: When should you get a mammogram?

by Cliff Mehrtens

A key to first-time mammograms is having it done at the right age.

Guidelines published by the American Cancer Society recommend women have their first mammogram – an X-ray picture of the breast – at age 40. But, if there is a history of cancer in your family, or if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer

genes, age 35 could be more appropriate for your first mammogram (check with your doctor).

First-time tests are used to check for breast cancer in women who show no signs or symptoms of the disease. Initial tests are called screening mammograms and usually involve two X-rays of each breast.

The X-rays make it possible to detect tumors that can’t be felt and find micro calcifications (small calcium deposits) that sometimes indicate breast cancer.

Your first mammogram becomes the baseline test, and test results after that are measured against it, said Mary Keefe, a breast health navigator at Presbyterian Cancer Center in Charlotte.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women age 40 or older have a screening mammogram every one to two years.

Many women hear frightening stories about discomfort associated with mammograms. But Keefe said it isn’t really that bad.

“The (breast) compression is just for a few seconds, and really, the pain isn’t unbearable,” she said.

Four X-rays are taken during a screening mammogram. Patients disrobe from the waist up and are given a gown to wear. The first X-ray view is top-to-bottom. Then the machine rotates to get determine a side view. Most patients are in the examin- ing room less than 10 minutes.

An estimated 226,870 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012, and 39,510 women will die from the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

More than 1,200 of those deaths are predicted to be in North Carolina. Among women, breast cancer is the most fre- quently diagnosed non-skin cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death (after lung cancer).

Numerous studies have shown that early detection – having a yearly mammogram – saves lives and increases treatment options. The five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 99 percent among people whose cancer has not spread beyond the breast at time of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society.

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