Risks and Realities of Mammograms

Screening mammograms can detect breast cancer as much as two years before a growth can be detected during a self or clinical exam

It’s an unsettling statistic: One in every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. 

“We know if breast cancer is diagnosed early it is generally easier to treat,” said Leigh Neumayer, MD, MS, the Department of Surgery chair at Banner – University Medical Center, who has a special focus on breast cancer. Screening mammograms, an X-ray of the breast, can detect breast cancer at its earliest stage – as much as two years before a growth can be detected during a self or clinical exam.

“Having a mammogram annually ensures that small and subtle changes can be detected more easily because of the benefit of multiple prior studies for comparison purposes,” explained Marisa Borders, MD, a radiologist and co-director of the Breast Imaging Center also at Banner – University Medical Center.

Hearing annual associated with radiation may raise some red flags. 

Dr. Borders offered this perspective, “The annual radiation exposure for the average person from the environment or natural background is about 3 mSv [a measurement of radiation]. By comparison, a two-view mammogram has about 0.2 to 0.4 mSv of exposure.”

And thanks to 3D mammogram technology, clearer more precise images are taken without additional radiation exposure: breast cancer detection is increased by 29 percent while the need for additional imaging is reduced by 15 percent.

If you have hesitations, it’s important to talk with your doctor and to understand your risk factors. These can include aging, your health and family history. 

At Banner Health, we follow National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines which recommend annual mammograms for women with normal risk factors beginning at age 40. If you are in your early 40s and have chosen to wait to get a mammogram, Dr. Neumayer advises that if you experience any changes, such as pain, nipple discharge or feel a lump, it’s time to schedule a mammogram and see a breast surgeon.