Breast cancer awareness: Demystifying mammograms
Six questions and answers to separate fact from fiction about mammograms
You may know (thanks to all those pink ribbons) that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also a great reminder to take care of your annual checkups before the holidays take over your schedule. If breast cancer is caught early through screening tools, the risk of death and the severity of disease is greatly reduced. The American Cancer Society says that breast cancer that’s local (not beyond the breast) has a five-year survival rate of 99%, and breast cancer that’s regional (just beyond the breast) has a five-year survival rate of 86%. Mammograms are a great way to help catch breast cancer early – before it spreads beyond the breast.
So why do many people put off getting a mammogram? With so much conflicting information on the internet, it’s sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Below are six questions and answers to help demystify mammograms.
Aren’t mammograms expensive?
As a preventive service, mammograms are covered without a copay on most Blue Shield health plans. That means that most people within the recommended age range or with a provider’s referral won’t have to pay anything for a mammogram. Note that 3D mammograms usually are more expensive than 2D ones, which may incur additional costs. It’s always best to check your plan’s medical benefits to confirm which services are covered:
- Log in to your online Blue Shield account, and choose the Benefits tab under myblueshield
- On the mobile app, choose My Plan from the top left corner, then click My Medical Coverage
- Review your Evidence of Coverage
Aren’t mammograms unsafe due to radiation?
While mammograms do emit a low dose of radiation, the amount is very small. For most people, the benefit of catching breast cancer early is far greater than the minimal risk of radiation. For those concerned, speak to a doctor before scheduling a mammogram.
Won’t a breast self-exam catch breast cancer – so why get a mammogram?
A breast self-exam can help track changes in the breast. But the American Cancer Society does not typically recommend regular breast self-exams due to lack of evidence that they catch cancer early when women also get mammograms (though this does not mean they should never be done). In fact, mammograms can often find potential cancer years before lumps or any other physical symptoms occur. So while people should know how their breasts normally look and feel so they can note changes, it’s no substitute for a mammogram.
Don’t mammograms hurt?
Mammograms use plastic plates to compress the breast, which can cause discomfort. However, each compression lasts for only a few moments. Mammogram technicians may be able to help manage the discomfort, so it’s important to tell the technician if the process hurts. Scheduling a mammogram the week after menstruation can also help manage discomfort, since breasts are usually swollen and tender in the week leading up to a period. Although it may be uncomfortable, a mammogram can bea life-saving screening that’s worth the temporary discomfort.
What about people without symptoms or family history of breast cancer?
Everyone, regardless of symptoms or family history, can potentially get breast cancer. In fact, more than 75% of women with breast cancer had no family history. The American Cancer Society recommends all women of average risk – meaning no personal/family history, genetic predisposition, or chest radiation therapy before age 30 – get annual mammograms beginning at age 45. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammograms every two years starting at age 50. Both groups agree that women may opt to start screening at age 40. Speaking to a doctor about the potential risks and benefits of screening at a younger age can help people make the right decision for them.
Should people hold off on mammograms until the COVID-19 pandemic is over?
While elective procedures were initially put on hold at the start of the pandemic, most facilities are offering them once again. Most healthcare facilities will have measures in place to protect against COVID-19, such as physical distancing in waiting rooms, sanitizing equipment, and masking. Based on risk profile, age, and date of last mammogram, a doctor can suggest when the best time to screen is. Of course, anyone with signs or symptoms of breast cancer should speak to their doctor right away.