Mammograms are the best tool we have to catch breast cancer in an early stage. With the CDC reporting that breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, it’s important to understand more about breast cancer and the tools we use to detect it.
Understanding Breast Cancer
The CDC describes breast cancer as a cancer that occurs when cells in the breast grow out of control. There are multiple types of breast cancer. The type of cancer depends on which cells in the breast are cancerous.
Breast cancer is deadly. The American Cancer Society states, “Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women(only lung cancer kills more women each year). The chance that a woman will die from breast cancer is about 1 in 39 (about 2.6%).” While breast cancer statistics are often bleak, the cancer is often highly treatable if it is caught at an early stage. Currently, mammograms remain one of the best options for discovering cancer in an early state.
Symptoms of breast cancer are numerous and varied. Some breast cancer patients do not show symptoms at all, which is why routine mammograms are so crucial for severe cancer prevention.
The signs and symptoms of breast cancer include
- Bumps on the breast or armpit
- Sore breasts
- Growth in one or both breasts
- Discharge or bleeding from the nipple
- Nipple soreness
Survival Rate if Caught in Early Stages
The National Breast Cancer Foundation states that early detection of breast cancer in patients can have a 99% survival rate over the next 5 years if the cancer is in a localized stage. Monthly self-examinations, as well as yearly scheduled screenings can help detect early signs of breast cancer.
What is a Mammogram?
A mammogram is a picture of the breast using a large x-ray machine. It is used to scan for breast cancer in women, who fail to show any signs or abnormalities.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there are two types of Mammograms: screening and diagnostic. The first involves two or more pictures of the breast, which makes it possible to scan for any signs of breast cancer. The second, diagnostic mammograms, are used after a clear sign of cancer is found on the breast, to further determine the next steps. Clear signs can be lumps, breast pain, thickening of the skin of the breast, nipple discharge, or a change in breast size or shape.
In order to get a mammogram, the patient will stand in front of a large x-ray machine. They will then be assisted by a technician while they place their breast on a plastic plate. Another plate from above will press down on the top, creating slight pressure. The x-ray will then be taken.
These steps will continue to the next breast. After this takes place, the patient will wait to make sure the pictures are clear and do not need to be retaken. The technician will not be able to tell the results of the mammogram and will receive the results from a doctor at a later date. Don’t forget that each woman’s mammogram will look different.
The Screening Process
The screening process utilizes tests and exams on people without symptoms to find a disease. If a diagnosis is found without having symptoms, it’s considered early detection.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Early detection of breast cancer with screening mammography means that treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it has spread.”
Since screening can detect breast cancer early, Mayo Clinic recommends beginning the screening process at age 40. There are both benefits and potential risks to the screening process, however. Some of these risks may include false positives, overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and false negatives. Regardless, these occurrences are outside of the provider’s control and happen on rare occasions.
For patients concerned about radiation exposure, the potential to receive exposure to radiation from mammogram screenings is little to none. The radiation exposure from everyday life is higher than a yearly scan, and the benefit of getting a scan can allow experts to catch signs of cancer in the early stages.
The American Cancer Society helps sort the results of mammograms into categories ranging from 0 to 6. This system is referred to as The Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System, also known as BI-RADS. These categories are as follows:
0: The results are inconclusive.
1: No abnormalities were detected.
2: Anything found, was benign.
3: Findings are probably benign. You may need a follow-up in six months.
4: An abnormality was found that could be cancerous, but most likely not. You may need a biopsy.
5: A tumor was identified with a 95% chance of being cancerous. You’ll need a biopsy.
6: A cancerous tumor has been confirmed.
If cancer is found, your doctor will most likely order an ultrasound, MRI, or tissue biopsy.