Five Mammography Myths That Put You at Risk
Knowing the truth about mammography could help save your life, or the life of someone you love. According to Alberta Health Services, 89 percent of women who find and treat their breast cancer early are still alive after five years.
A mammography uses low-dose X-rays at safe levels to take images – or mammograms – of the inside of your breasts. It is the gold standard of breast cancer screening and has contributed to fewer Canadian women dying of breast cancer. In fact, it is the only screening exam shown to reduce breast cancer deaths, according to the 2013 Toward Optimized Practice Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines.
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) reports that 2015 breast cancer deaths have decreased by 44 percent (since the peak in 1986), thanks to earlier detection from regular mammography screening, advances in screening technology and improved treatments. Yet, some persistent myths still exist and dissuade people from getting screened.
Here are the top five myths that discourage screening and put you at risk:
Mammography doesn’t help.
Regular mammography exams are the best way to find breast cancer early, sometimes two to four years before it can be felt. Finding cancer earlier means broader treatment options. Women who are screened regularly are less likely to need invasive treatments, have less recurrence and are more likely to survive, if breast cancer is diagnosed. According to the CBCF, regular mammography screening has been shown to reduce breast cancer deaths by at least 25 percent.
Mammography causes cancer.
Mammography uses a very small amount of radiation – it’s like getting an X-ray. The risk of harm is extremely low and radiation levels are highly regulated. Thanks to technology, radiation doses in mammography have decreased with time while increasing in accuracy. For example, the addition of Tomosynthesis to your mammography provides a 3D scan of the breast that can then be viewed in slices. This provides a greater level of detail and a clearer view of the breast tissue with the same small dose of radiation as the standard mammography. The benefits of detecting and treating something that is life-threatening far outweigh the risk of harm from radiation.
Mammograms are inaccurate.
In 2015, breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer diagnosis in Canadian women – one in four cancer diagnoses are breast cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Canadian women, after lung cancer. In Alberta, 1 in 8 women are expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime and 1 in 31 will die from the disease (2012 statistics).
Although they are not perfect, mammography is the best tool we have in early detection. Overall, when cancer is present, it is about 80 percent effective in identifying it. In addition, new technology such as Tomosythesis (3D scans) and an Automated Breast Ultrasound (ABUS) can be added to the traditional mammography, to improve accuracy and increase sensitivity.
Mammography is painful.
During a mammography, two X-ray plate surfaces slowly move together, compressing the breast for a short time. This compression is necessary to get the clearest image of breast tissue using the least amount of radiation. Each breast will be imaged at least twice to create a top and side view for each one.
Everyone’s pain threshold is different, but the discomfort is temporary and minimal, and the benefits far outweigh the risks. We recommend that you schedule your appointment one week after your last menstruation to decrease breast tenderness.
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I have a low risk factor so I don’t need to get tested.
The Canadian Cancer Society recommends the following:
- For women aged 40-49, speak to your doctor about your risk of breast cancer, along with the benefits and risks of mammography. In Alberta, you are covered under your Alberta Health Care Plan for one exam, per year, if you are age 40 or older.
- For women aged 50-69, have a mammogram every two years.
- For women 70 and over, talk to your doctor about how often you should have a mammogram.
The Public Health Agency of Canada produced an information booklet in 2009 as part of the Canadian Breast Cancer Screening Initiative. It outlines the benefits and risks of mammography and provides help in deciding whether or not to be screened: Information on Mammography for Women Age 40 and Older – A Decision Aid for Breast Cancer Screening in Canada.
For more information on types of breast imaging exams, how to prepare and the procedure for each, visit our Breast Imaging services page.
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2009) Information on Mammography for Women Aged 40 and Older: A Decision Aid for Breast Cancer Screening in Canada. Chronic Disease Management Division, Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Control.
Toward Optimized Practice. (2013) Breast Cancer Screening Clinical Practice Guidelines. September.