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Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women across the globe, as well as the leading cause of female cancer deaths. If that sounds dreadful to you, that's because it is. There is no reason to be pessimistic about your own risk of breast cancer if you live in a developed country with proper screening procedures, however. Eighty-nine percent of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in western nations — the vast majority — are still alive five years after they were first diagnosed.
Early detection of cancer significantly increases survival rates, and in the case of breast cancer that means having regular mammograms.
If regular mammograms are recommended in your country for your age group, you might be a little scared to participate. Many women are scared that the mammogram will hurt them, and this may lead them to ignore their invitation for screening.
What Are Mammograms?
Mammograms — also called mammographies — are x-ray pictures of breasts. There are two basic types: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. Screening mammograms are used to look for signs of early breast cancer in all women over 40, and they should be performed every one to two years.
A diagnostic mammogram is used to look for breast cancer in women who already have symptoms. Such symptoms may include breast pain, a lump, discharge from the nipple, changes in breast size or shape, and even thickening of the breast's skin. These symptoms can also appear in women who have benign breast conditions, but they are a reason for further investigation.
In the case of screening mammograms, no suspicious symptoms are present at all — these mammograms are offered to detect early signs of breast cancer that cannot be identified through clinical examination. A screening mammogram can pick up tiny tumors that can't be felt or microcalcifications that may point to breast cancer.
Studies and clinical trials indicate that mammograms are beneficial for women after 40, but do not reduce breast cancer deaths in younger women. As such, the recommendation is that all women over 40 get screened annually or biannually, but especially women over 50.
Do Mammograms Have Any Disadvantages?
Mammograms do come with small risks. Though the pros are believed to outweigh the cons by far in women over the age of 40, you'll want to know the disadvantages of having a screening mammogram before you decide to have one.
Mammograms are x-rays and use radiation. Repeated exposure to this radiation has the potential to cause cancer in itself. They should not, therefore, be used more often than clinically warranted. Pregnant women or those who think they might possibly be pregnant should always talk to their healthcare provider before undergoing any type of x-ray, as the radiation can harm the growing baby.
A false positive result will inevitably lead to much more medical tests as well as lots of mental stress and anxiety. A false negative result, in which no cancer is detected despite its presence, will do the opposite and give you false peace of mind that may lead you to ignore symptoms of breast cancer later on.
Finally, women who have mammograms should know that though this screening procedure reduces the risk of breast cancer deaths for most women, this is not always true. Certain aggressive cancers grow fast and spread through the body at alarming rates. If this happens to an individual woman, there is the chance that she would have preferred to live normally without being aware of the cancer for longer.
You may still have some concerns about the mammogram procedure itself, so we will describe it in detail on the next page.