BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH: When to get a screening and what to expect

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, dedicated to raising awareness about the impact of breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer, with 7.8 million women diagnosed between 2015 and 2020. 

The key to treating cancer is early detection. This month, we’re going to dive into when to get a screening and what you should expect. 

If you’re going to get a screening this year, whether you’ve never done one before or you just need a refresher, let’s break down what that means. 

So why do we do screenings?

A breast cancer screening is essentially checking for breast cancer before there are any external symptoms. Detecting cancer early makes treatment much easier and leads to better prognosis. 

There are a few different tests a doctor can order for a breast cancer screening, and they will recommend tests based on your background and the accepted guidelines. 

When will I need a screening?

You’ll probably experience a breast exam at your annual OB/GYN appointment, where your doctor will feel for lumps. This will happen no matter your age - self-exams are absolutely crucial as well in the meantime! Regularly check yourself for lumps, and familiarize yourself with the way your breast tissue feels on a normal day. 

Depending on your family history and risk factors, your doctor may suggest a screening (typically a mammogram) starting biannually anywhere after 40. If you are more at risk, a doctor could suggest you start testing earlier or do testing more regularly.

It’s generally agreed that, after 50, women should get tested every other year. 

What types of screening tests are there?

Mammograms are the most common type of test for breast cancer screenings, and they’re usually a doctor’s first line of defense. 

There are other tests, like MRI’s, that can be ordered if someone is at extremely high risk for cancer or if someone has dense breast tissue (making it difficult to find an abnormality in a mammogram). Ultrasounds can be used as well, but they tend to have a problem with false positives. 

What should I expect during a mammogram?

Since this is the most common test, and typically more involved than an MRI, let’s dive into what you should expect during a mammogram. 

A mammogram is essentially an x-ray of the breasts. This requires some specific maneuvering. From the CDC

You will stand in front of a special X-ray machine. A technologist will place your breast on a plastic plate. Another plate will firmly press your breast from above. The plates will flatten the breast, holding it still while the X-ray is being taken. You will feel some pressure. The steps are repeated to make a side view of the breast. The other breast will be X-rayed in the same way. You will then wait while the technologist checks the four X-rays to make sure the pictures do not need to be re-done.

Sounds comfortable, right?

Most women report feeling discomfort during a mammogram, if not outright pain. Thankfully, mammograms don’t take long, so the discomfort should pass quickly. That being said, your breasts will be more sensitive around the time of your period, so try to schedule around that. 

Then what?

Well, a doctor will look at your results and be in touch in the following weeks! Hopefully there’s nothing there, but in case there is, there’s still no reason for immediate panic. 

If your doctor calls you back for a follow-up, it still doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve found cancer. They may just want another look at something, and will likely order more tests. Lumps can be anything from calcification to a benign cyst, but yes, it could also be cancer. 

Your doctor will walk you through all the steps, and you should remember to ask any questions you need to, in order to feel comfortable and informed.

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