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Breast Cancer Screening: Answering Mammogram Myths and Fears

Early detection of breast cancer can improve the chances of survival, but many women avoid regular mammograms and screening — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Belinda Holland explains why regular breast cancer screenings are vital.

Presented by Kaiser Permanente October 27, 2021

One in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is that when breast cancer is diagnosed early, treatment options are much better and complications tend to be less frequent and serious. Unfortunately, many women avoid mammograms and breast cancer screenings that could save their lives.

Many women have fallen behind on their breast cancer screenings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Belinda Holland, a diagnostic radiology specialist with Kaiser Permanente in Portland, says that regular breast cancer screenings are vital for women as they age.

“Breast cancer screenings look for signs of cancer when there are no symptoms, and can detect breast cancer early, when it’s easier to treat,” Dr. Holland explains.

Determining Rick Factors

Many factors determine a person’s risk level for breast cancer, including family history of breast cancer, lifestyle and environmental factors, and genetics. Your doctor will help you determine what kind of testing is appropriate for you. They may simply recommend a clinical breast exam to feel for lumps or other changes. If you are 40 or older or at higher risk, they might recommend a mammogram. 

“Mammograms are the safest and most effective method for detecting breast cancer that is too small for an individual or physician to detect,” says Dr. Holland.

During a mammogram, a machine squeezes your breasts to make them flatter and easier to X-ray. At least two pictures are taken of each breast — one from the top and one from the side. 3D mammograms are another advanced form of breast imaging that uses a low-dose X-ray system and computer reconstructions to create three-dimensional images of the breasts. Although some women experience pain during mammograms, the procedure is quick and noninvasive.

Screenings Can Save Lives

So why are people putting off these exams? It can come down to one of several reasons. Some women think they don’t need to have an annual breast cancer screening or mammogram because they don’t have any symptoms of breast cancer or family history of the disease. Some think if they’ve had a mammogram with normal results in the past year or two that they don’t need another one. Others avoid mammograms out of fear of the procedure itself or worry about “finding something wrong.” Finally, some women think mammograms will expose them to harmful radiation. 

Having concerns about breast cancer is common. But it’s important to remember that these tests could save your life.

So who should get screened and tested? Doctors typically recommend starting annual screening at the age of 40. Age, gender, genetics and race can all increase your risk for breast cancer. The biggest risk factors are if you have had cancer previously or if there is a family history of breast cancer. Your doctor can help you assess your personal risk factors and select the screening that is right for you. And if you notice any physical changes to your breasts, including a palpable lump, contact your doctor right away for further evaluation.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s cancer services in Oregon and Southwest Washington.