Every October, communities worldwide come together to raise awareness about breast cancer, highlighting the vital role that screening has to play in tackling the disease and providing treatment as soon as possible.
Why is screening important?
Breast cancer is the most frequent cancer among women, impacting 2.1 million women each year, and it also causes the largest number of cancer-related deaths among women. In 2018, it’s estimated that 627,000 women died from breast cancer – approximately 15% of all female cancer deaths1. Although very rare, breast cancer also occurs in men: male breast cancer makes up less than one percent of cases2.
Breast cancer screening is vital because it can identify the disease even before a person has any symptoms, and the earlier cancer is found, the better the chances of survival. Early detection also reduces the likelihood of needing a mastectomy or chemotherapy during treatment.
The main screening method is mammography (x-ray), and other less common methods include MRI, ultrasound, and clinical breast exams. In addition to regular self-exams, and according to current guidelines from the American Cancer Society:
Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms (x-rays of the breast) if they wish to do so.
Women ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every two years, or can continue yearly screening.
Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live ten more years or longer.
All women should be familiar with the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked to breast cancer screening.
What to expect during a mammogram?
At the clinic, you will be asked to undress from the waist up and given a gown to wear. The nurse will place your breasts on the x-ray machine, and the upper plate of the machine is lowered to compress and flatten your breast for a few seconds while the image is taken. Two views of each breast are normally captured, and you will need to change position in between. The whole process lasts around 20 minutes, but each compression only lasts for a few seconds.
Don’t schedule your mammogram in the week before your period as your breasts may be more tender, causing discomfort, and it may also be more difficult to get good images if there is swelling.
It is not advisable to wear deodorant as traces of it can show up on the x-ray.
Take time to discuss your medical history and any issues with your breasts before the x-ray is done.
While it can feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell the nurse if the procedure causes significant pain.
1 World Health Organization: Breast Cancer https://www.who.int/cancer/prevention/diagnosis-screening/breast-cancer/en/
2 National Breast Cancer Foundation: Male Breast Cancer https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/male-breast-cancer