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The Importance of Breast Cancer Screening

October 5, 2020
Sarah Falcone RN

As temperatures cool and leaves begin to change, we are beginning to see the colors of fall all around us. The golds, deep reds, and pink signal that October is upon us. The pink ribbon has become an international symbol for breast cancer awareness. And this month serves as an annual campaign to promote action in the fight against the disease. To kick off breast cancer awareness month, here is some important information on the importance of breast cancer screening, that could even help save a life.

What is Breast Cancer Screening?

Breast cancer screening is routine testing for healthy people that are not showing any symptoms or having any problems. There are different types of screening tools and tests, and your physician can help determine what is best for you.

Types of screening tests

There are several different screening tests that providers can use to check for breast cancer. For example, clinical breast exams are sometimes part of annual wellness visits. Another example is thermography which uses an infrared camera to view heat patterns and blood flow in body tissues. A third example of a breast cancer screening test is mammography. This is the type that most people are familiar with. So what exactly is mammography?

The most common screening method

Mammography is a procedure that uses a low dose x-ray to show the inside breast tissue. It gives us a mammogram, similar to a photograph of the internal breast tissue. Mammography can visualize lumps that cannot be felt by physical exam. Furthermore, in some cases, mammography may detect changes in the breasts that could be cancerous years before symptoms would appear.

Mammography is a somewhat newer technology. It was introduced in the United States in the 1980s. Notably, since that time, deaths from breast cancer among women have decreased by 30%.

Current recommendations

The recommendation for routine screening varies from person to person. Breast cancer can affect men but the risk is low. The vast majority of women are at average risk of developing breast cancer. This means that their risk is less than 15 percent of developing breast cancer in their entire lifetime. Still, others might be considered high risk. For this reason, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider about what is right for you. When you talk with your physician, they will discuss your screening options.

Overdiagnosis

Recent studies warn against overdiagnosis. Overdiagnosis may represent 20% or more of all breast cancers among screen-detected cancers. Overdiagnosis leads to overtreatment and inflicts considerable physical, psychological, and economic harm to many women.

This term overdiagnosis refers to cases where breast changes discovered during examination are diagnosed as cancer, but would never have caused any problems or evolved, had they not been found on screening. This is an example of why it is vital for individuals to understand the risks and benefits of screening. There are risks and limitations for every test.

Because the incidence of cancer in women under the age of 40 is so low, it is recommended to avoid testing before that time. This is one way that overdiagnosis can be mitigated. Newer studies show that cancers diagnosed at an earlier age can be more aggressive. Therefore early detection is important. The American Cancer Society recommends annual screening starting at age 40.

Why is breast cancer screening important?

Although there are some risks with screening as we mentioned, routine screening offers important benefits including early detection and early intervention. It is recommended that women without any risk factors should still be screened. This is because up to 75% of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women who have no risk factors at all.

Early Detection

Early detection is important. Firstly, early detection helps with a diagnosis before symptoms appear. Secondly, the risk of dying from cancer goes down by 25-30% or more with early detection. Without early detection, tumors can grow and possibly spread to other parts of the body. As you see, early detection is important and can lead to early intervention.

Early intervention

With an early diagnosis, patients have the opportunity for early intervention. This is important because cancer is usually easier to treat early in the disease process. Furthermore, treatment usually requires less aggressive therapy. More advanced cases may need extensive treatment including chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Another benefit of early detection and early intervention is the lower cost associated with treatment. This is because the treatment may be less extensive or invasive. Also, treatment plans may be shorter and require fewer therapies. The prognosis is often better too.

What do we need to know about having a mammogram?

So now that you understand what a mammogram is and why it is important, there are just a few more tips you should know when talking to your provider about this important screening test.

Firstly, it is a relatively painless and quick test. It only takes around 20 minutes. Some patients experience mild discomfort because, during the test, breast tissue is pressed between two plates. But if you are prepared and know what to expect this should not worry you.

Secondly, you may have options. In some cases, you can choose between a 2D or a 3D mammogram. 3D mammography, also known as digital breast tomosynthesis, has become more common. Yet, it is still not available everywhere. As with all tests, there are pros and cons. One benefit of this newer technology is that it may be more helpful in showing changes in women who have denser breast tissue. Individuals who choose 3D mammography may have a lower risk of being "called back" for re-examination in the case of an unclear result. However, one reason that a 3D mammogram may not be the preferred choice is a cost consideration. This newer exam can cost more and additional health insurance plans may not fully cover it.

Thirdly, some centers offer same day results. If you might be one to worry over your test findings, choosing this type of provider might be best for you.

Conclusion

So as you can see, the mammogram is a relatively simple, quick, and painless test for breast cancer screening. The benefits of early detection and early intervention should be weighed with the risk of overdiagnosis as you talk to your provider. Armed with the information you have now, you can confidently talk to your healthcare provider about your screening options.

If you still have questions or you would like to talk about your risk and the screening options available, MyVirtualPhysician has doctors available for consultation. If you have any suggestions for additional topics you want to read about please let us know! Don’t forget to follow us on social media.

Sources:

  1. Autier, P., & Boniol, M. (2018). Mammography screening: A major issue in medicine. European journal of cancer (Oxford, England : 1990)90, 34–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejca.2017.11.002
  2. Lancaster, R. B., Gulla, S., De Los Santos, J., & Umphrey, H. (2018). Breast Cancer Screening and Optimizing Recommendations. Seminars in roentgenology53(4), 280–293. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.ro.2018.08.002
  3. UpToDate®. (2020). Patient education: Breast cancer screening (The Basics) [Patient Education Handout]. Retrieved 30 September 2020, from https://www-uptodate-com.ezproxy.library.unlv.edu/contents/breast-cancer-screening-the-basics.

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