The biggest key to fighting breast cancer is early diagnosis. Along with your monthly self-exam, most women should schedule an annual mammogram.
Breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis of a woman with this disease.
For women with an average risk of breast cancer the American Cancer Society recommends this screening schedule:
Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
All women should understand what to expect when getting a mammogram for breast cancer screening – what the test can and cannot do.
Women who are at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get an MRI and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30. This includes women who:
- Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of about 20% to 25% or greater, according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history (see below)
- Have a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation (based on having had genetic testing)
- Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, and have not had genetic testing themselves
- Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years
- Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with one of these syndromes
Once you have had your mammogram, what happens next?
Usually following a mammogram you will get a letter with your results within 30 days that everything was normal.
But if doctors find something suspicious, they’ll call you back – usually within just 5 days – to take new pictures or get other tests.
Getting that call can be scary, but a suspicious finding does not mean you have cancer.
A suspicious finding may be just dense breast tissue, a cyst, or even a tumor that isn’t cancer. Other times, the image just isn’t clear and needs to be retaken. Or, if this is your first mammogram, your doctor may want to look at an area more closely simply because there is no previous mammogram to compare it with.
You will likely have another follow-up mammogram, a diagnostic mammogram. You may also have an ultrasound of your breast or possibly an MRI.
Following one of these tests you are likely to be told 1 of the following:
* The suspicious area turned out to be nothing to worry about and you can return to your regular mammogram schedule.
* The area is probably nothing to worry about, but you should have your next mammogram sooner than normal – usually in 4 to 6 months – to make sure it doesn’t change over time.
* Cancer was not ruled out and a biopsy is needed to tell for sure.
– Even if you need a breast biopsy, it still doesn’t mean you have cancer. Most biopsy results are not cancer, but a biopsy is the only way to find out. During the procedure, a small amount of tissue is removed and looked at under a microscope.
If you do have cancer and you are referred to a breast specialist, use these tips to make your appointment as useful as possible:
* Make a list of questions to ask at the appointment. Download a list from the American Cancer Society or call us at 1-800-227-2345.
* Bring a family member or friend with you. They can serve as an extra pair of ears, help you remember things later, and give you support.
* Ask if you can record important conversations.
* Take notes. If someone uses a word you don’t know, ask them to spell it and explain it.
* Ask the doctors or nurses to explain anything you don’t understand.
How can I stay calm while waiting?
Waiting for appointments and the results of tests can be frightening. Many women experience strong emotions including disbelief, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness during this time. Some things to remember:
* It’s normal to have these feelings.
* Most breast changes are not cancer and are not life-threatening.
* Talking with a loved one or a counselor about your feelings may help.
* Talking with other women who have been through a breast biopsy may help.
* The American Cancer Society is available at 1-800-227-2345 around the clock to answer your questions and provide support.
For more on mammograms and the importance of early detection, visit Cancer.org here.
Learn more about non-cancerous breast conditions here.
Guidelines for what to do if you are called back after a mammogram, visit here.