Through years of practice as a general surgeon — much of it caring for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer — it is clear that there are some general misconceptions about the disease. Who’s at risk? Who should get routine mammograms? I can understand the confusion.
When a national medical task-force announced recommendations that most women under the age of 50 should not get routine mammograms, it challenged the traditional notion that annual screenings should begin at age 40.
However, for many women, reasons for not getting a screening mammogram are rooted in several common “myths” that are often repeated and accepted as fact. The following are a few I hear most:
Myth: Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family.
Fact: According to the American Cancer Society, more than 85 percent of women who get breast cancer, have no family history of the disease.
Myth: I’m too old (or too young) to get breast cancer.
Fact: Breast cancer rates increase with age; however, one in 10 cases occurred in women under 45. More than 40 percent of breast cancers occur in women over age 65.
Breast cancer in younger women tends to be more aggressive. Death rates for women diagnosed before the age of 50 are nearly twice as high as those diagnosed later. Some studies attribute this to more women receiving screening mammograms after 50, thus finding cancers earlier when treatment can be most effective.
Death rates from breast cancer have been declining, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. This might be the result of earlier detection through screening and increased awareness. A recent study found more than 70 percent of breast cancer deaths occurred in individuals who did not receive regular screening mammograms.
Myth: I don’t have any lumps or pain, so I don’t need a mammogram.
Fact: The majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have any lumps, pain, or other signs of breast cancer. By the time you can feel a lump, it’s more likely to have spread.
Myth: I have a mammogram every year, and it’s always normal.
Fact: Mammograms offer our best means of early detection — but they're not perfect. Early detection saves lives.
The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute recommend screening mammograms begin at 40. Most important is for women — and men — to ask questions and get the facts.