Death rates from breast cancer have been on the decline since 1989, thanks in large part to better detection. So, when the American Cancer Society updated its screening guidelines for the disease in October 2015, many women -- and even some health care providers -- were surprised.
The new recommendations state that women with an average risk should begin annual mammograms at age 45, rather than at 40, as once thought. They should keep getting them until they're 54, and then every other year after that. The ACS also dropped its support of clinical breast exams, where a doctor or nurse feels the breast for lumps.
Why would the ACS suggest that women get fewer mammograms, when we know that early detection is key? Shouldn’t we be more safe than sorry?
Actually, it’s not that simple. Before you choose any breast cancer screening method, be sure to weigh the benefits and drawbacks. For example, a mammogram will expose you to a small amount of radiation. What’s more, the results can be hard to read, and may even lead to inaccurate "false-positive" results and unnecessary biopsies.
“There is good sense in reminding people that mammograms aren’t perfect,” says Harold Burstein, MD, a medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School. “It’s important for women and their primary care providers to talk about pros and cons.”
What do these updated guidelines mean for you? That based on your personal set of risk factors, your doctor can help you make the best decision about when to begin screening for breast cancer. She can also help you choose which screening methods are most ideal for you. The good news: Experts have more ways to diagnose the disease than ever before.
If your radiologist finds a strange mass on your mammogram, some of these tools can also help provide extra information -- before going ahead with a biopsy.
This is just like a standard mammogram, except it produces digital rather than film images. It’s become a popular alternative to standard mammography.
Like a picture you’d take on your digital camera, your doctor can manipulate, enhance, or make it larger so it’s easier to read. This option can give more accurate readings for women under age 50 or those with dense breasts. And they’re easier to store than film.