Did you know that one out of every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime? Did you also know that the five-year survival rate is 98% when the disease is detected and treated at an early stage? As we recognize National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, these two statistics should help us understand the importance of breast cancer screening in all women.
Breast cancer screening means checking for breast cancer before any signs or symptoms are present. The best way to do this is to have regular clinical breast exams, and to undergo routine mammograms, especially if you are over the age of 40. These x-rays make it possible to detect tumors that cannot be felt on exam, and may also find microcalcifications that can indicate the presence of cancer. Mammograms will not pick up every breast cancer; however, these tests are very sensitive. In fact, about 75-80 % of breast cancers will be identified by mammography.
Up to 20% of breast cancers will be missed by mammography. This is what is known as a false-negative result. The most common cause of this is high breast density, which is more often a problem in younger women. As we age, our breast tissue becomes more fatty, making it less dense and easier for the radiologist to interpret our mammogram correctly.
False-positive results can also occur. This means the mammogram is read as being abnormal, but after further evaluation no cancer is present. Additional testing such as diagnostic mammograms, ultrasound, and biopsies are often recommended by the radiologist to complete the evaluation. False-positive results are most common in younger women, those with a family history of breast cancer, and those on hormone replacement therapy.
Women should talk with their doctors about when it is appropriate to start having screening mammograms and get a referral to a certified facility that staffs well trained radiologists who are experienced in mammography interpretation. Results should be available to you within about two weeks. Expect to receive a notice by mail concerning your results and any recommendations for further testing. Your physician will receive a formal report dictated by the radiologist. FOLLOW UP ON YOUR TEST. Just because you do not receive a notice does not mean the results were normal. It is also a good idea to discuss any recommended further testing with your doctor. He or she can explain what the mammogram findings mean and why further testing will be helpful.
Those of us who have had mammograms will certainly agree that they are not fun, and there is always some anxiety while awaiting the results. But remember, the benefits of the exam far outweigh the discomfort and worry. Talk to your physician about any concerns you may have before scheduling with radiology.
For further information on breast cancer screening and what you can do to get involved in National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, please go to the following resources: