Every year, over 250,000 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. As many as one in eight women in the United States will develop it in their lifetimes, according to breastcancer.org. The good news is, with advances in detection and treatment, death rates from breast cancer have been on the decline since 1989.
Mammography is one such detection technique that can lower a woman's risk of dying from breast cancer. That is why the American Cancer Society recommends, beginning at age 45 (or sooner depending on risk factors), all women should have annual mammograms.
Here are four reasons it's important to have an annual mammogram.
1. Mammograms detect cancer sooner than self-exams
By the time cancer is large enough to be detected in a self-exam, it has progressed beyond stage I and will be harder to treat. In fact, mammograms can detect cancers that are only a few millimeters in diameter. "Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer help save thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their health care providers took advantage of these tests," according to the American Cancer Society.
2. Mammograms allow you to begin treatment before cancer spreads
Breast cancer begins in the breasts, but that doesn't mean it stays there. Once cancer spreads to lymph nodes and other parts of the body, treatments have a lower success rate. At the time breast cancer spreads, it's known as metastatic or stage IV cancer and requires more exhaustive measures to control, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Following a metastatic diagnosis, cancer treatment becomes a lifelong process that focuses on control of the spread and quality of life.
3. Having annual mammograms lowers your risk of needing a mastectomy
Mastectomies are required when a tumor has developed that is too large in proportion to the breast to be operable or when cancerous cells are found throughout the breast tissue. Occasionally, women who need to have a single mastectomy will choose to remove both breasts to reduce the risk of recurrence. In a mastectomy, the entire breast is removed. If the woman wants to regain the appearance of breasts, she will need reconstructive surgery in the future.
If cancer is detected soon enough, as with an annual mammogram, a combination of lumpectomy and radiation may prevent its spread while still preserving much of the shape of the breast.
4. Having mammograms over time lets you track changes in your breasts
Doctors find it helpful to compare images of your breasts over time because it allows them to see whether small calcified spots are beginning to condense or enlarge. Many women will have some calcified spots, but they are usually noncancerous. However, "when they show up in certain patterns, they may be a cause for concern. For example, sometimes they grow in clusters or all in a line, which can be a sign of cancer," Susan G. Comen explains. Abnormal patterns are easier to recognize when there are past images to compare to current ones.
Making annual mammograms a priority won't just give you peace of mind, doing so could save your life. Talk to your doctor to find out when you should have your first mammogram.