Protect Yourself: Breast Cancer Screening
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — the perfect time to talk about the importance of breast cancer screening. Every woman has a story or connection to breast cancer; my grandmother died of breast cancer before I was born. After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, regardless of race or ethnicity. Getting a mammogram is the best way to reduce the impact of breast cancer, because tumors caught early are easier to treat.
The best way to find breast cancer early is with a mammogram, a low-dose x-ray of the breasts. Mammograms can sometimes find cancer up to three years before it can be felt. Don't think that checking your breasts is enough — mammograms are much better at finding a cancer early. Your health care provider will do additional tests if there is anything wrong on your mammogram because an abnormal finding often does not mean a cancer diagnosis. Here's the good news: Even if it is cancer, most women survive breast cancer when it's found and treated early.
You might wonder when you should get a mammogram. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women 50 to 74 years old get a mammogram every two years. If you're under 50, talk to your health care provider about when to start getting mammograms and how often you should get them. You might need mammograms sooner or more often if breast cancer or ovarian cancer runs in your family. Learn more about risk factors for breast cancer, including risk factors you can control (such as alcohol use) and risk factors you can't control (such as family history) from this CDC infographic. Talk about these risk factors with your doctor. And always talk to your doctor about any changes you notice with your breasts, like new lumps, changes in shape or size, or any unusual fluid coming from your nipple. If you are at high risk for breast cancer because of your family history, there are medications (PDF, 125KB) you can take that have been shown to lower risk. Your doctor can tell you more about that, too.
If you need a mammogram, you may be worried about the cost. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, a woman 40 or older can now get a mammogram for free every year or two with no out-of-pocket costs. In all, there are 22 preventive services (things like screenings and tests) that most health insurance plans cover to meet a woman's unique health care needs. Learn more by visiting HealthCare.gov.
If you don't have health insurance, you can find a program in your area that gives free or low-cost mammograms.
Take control of your health — talk to your doctor about when you should start getting mammograms and how often. Encourage a woman in your life to do the same. Email this blog post to your loved ones, and let's raise awareness about breast cancer screenings together!
- Breast Cancer Statistics, CDC, 2013, http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/statistics/
- USPSTF Screening for Breast Cancer, 2009, http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsbrca.htm