Do You Really Need a Mammogram Every Year?

Healthy Living

October 6, 2020

October means more than changing leaves, pumpkin spice and spooky door decor. Each year, store shelves fill with products sporting tiny pink ribbons in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month — and for good reason. 

Aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. 

Men get breast cancer, too, of course, though it’s a condition that disproportionately affects women. About 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in her life. For men, it’s 1 in 883.

Fortunately, thanks in part to awareness efforts and better diagnostics, people with breast cancer have better overall survival rates than they used to. Women with non-metastatic invasive breast cancer, for instance, have a 91% 5-year survival rate. 

Better diagnostics includes access to mammograms, a screening tool that can help doctors diagnose breast cancer early enough to treat it. 

You might not love the idea of getting pressed by a machine once a year, but this critical process could help you identify problems early. And in some cases, it may be lifesaving. 

Thinking about putting off your annual mammogram? Here are some good reasons to start — and keep — doing them.

Why Women Need Mammograms

More than 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. And sadly, more than 40,000 women will die because of it. The disease is often treatable, but early detection can make a marked difference.

Importance of Early Detection

The key is to catch the disease before it spreads beyond the breast and surrounding lymph nodes. Among women whose cancer is caught before it moves outside of the breast, 99% survive for at least five years after being diagnosed.

Mammography is one of the best tools available for breast cancer detection. It has the potential to identify a cancerous growth before you even experience any symptoms.

Process of Getting a Mammogram

During this procedure, a medical professional will use low-level x-rays to capture images of your breasts. This is considered a safe procedure. That means you don’t need to worry about damage from x-ray radiation exposure.

Getting a clear picture requires compressing your breasts. Flattening the tissue makes it easier for a doctor to spot abnormalities. You’ll position your breast on a mammography machine, and the device’s two flat plates will squeeze it.

Most machines use an approach known as 2D mammography to capture images of the tissue. Digital breast tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammography, is a newer technique that may identify more cancers, especially in dense breast tissue. 

When combined with standard mammograms, 3D mammograms may help diagnose more problems earlier and with fewer overall procedures, but that’s not a guarantee. Plus, researchers still don’t know if this technology helps reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. It’s something to ask your individual doctor about given your personal risk.

With either approach, after the technician has obtained clear images, you’ll repeat the process on the other side. Altogether, it should take only 15 to 20 minutes.

The technician will pass the images on to a radiologist, who will examine them for signs of cancer. If abnormalities are detected, you’ll be asked to come back in for a followup procedure.

When to Get a Mammogram

Not every woman has an equal chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Whether you should schedule a mammogram right away depends on your age and your personal risk level.

The Standard Recommendation

Most women start getting mammogram guidance at age 40. The American Cancer Society advises that annual mammograms are optional for 40- to 44-year-old women of average risk.

Once you turn 45, though, yearly mammograms should become your standard practice. You’ll need to keep that up for 10 years. 

At age 55, you can probably switch to having the test done every other year if risk remains low.

Eventually, you and your doctor can discuss whether you’ve aged out of the practice. It’s generally recommended that you continue as long as your life expectancy is another 10 years or more.

Alternate Guidance for High-risk Groups

If you’re in a high-risk group, your doctor will probably advise beginning annual mammograms at age 30. You may need to have yearly MRI imaging of your breasts done as well.

In general, being considered high-risk means that you have a lifetime breast cancer risk of 20% to 25% or more, based on family and medical history. 

Possessing the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or having a close family member with one of those mutations may qualify you as high-risk, too. 

You may also need to start early mammograms if you or a family member has certain medical syndromes or if you’ve undergone radiation therapy that targeted your chest area.

Comprehensive Breast Care

Whether or not you’re in a high-risk group, mammograms should be just one part of your breast-care routine. 

However, you might be surprised to learn that the American Cancer Society doesn’t recommend clinical breast exams and self-exams in most cases. These exams haven’t been proven beneficial for most women.

Instead, one of the best things that you can do is to familiarize yourself with the normal feel and appearance of your breasts. If you notice any changes, talk to your doctor.

In fact, it’s a good idea for you and your healthcare provider to discuss breast health regularly. Your doctor should speak to you about your personal breast cancer risk and remind you of the importance of mammograms and early detection.

How to Afford a Mammogram

Yearly mammograms might sound like an expensive undertaking for those living on a budget. Fortunately, there are options for getting this test done with little to no out-of-pocket cost for most people.

Mammograms and Major Medical Insurance

Because early detection of diseases like breast cancer is critical, the Affordable Care Act prioritizes preventive care. With an ACA-compliant medical plan, you’ll have access to approved preventive care, such as 2D mammograms for qualifying women, at no cost. 

Even if you haven’t met your deductible, you won’t be charged coinsurance or a copay.

If you have major medical insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, you probably have an ACA-compliant plan that covers preventive 2D mammograms.

The ACA mandates that these insurance plans must include mammograms for women ages 40 and up. You can access a free mammogram every one to two years.

Women with a high risk of breast cancer may be able to access additional free preventive services. Depending on your situation, this may include genetic counseling or earlier mammograms.

Other Low-cost Options

If you don’t have medical insurance or you have a short term plan that doesn’t cover preventive care, you may still be able to access affordable mammography.

Low-income women can locate services through the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). To qualify, your annual income can’t exceed 250% of the federal poverty level. In most states, that would be a max income of $31,900 for an individual in 2020.

Visit the program’s website to learn about the resources available in your state.

If you don’t meet the income guidelines for care through NBCCEDP, there are other resources that may be able to help. Your local or state health department, for example, should be able to refer you to low-cost or free options available to you locally. There may also be free clinics and other local resources at your area hospitals. It doesn’t hurt to call around and check.

You can also call the Susan G. Komen organization’s Komen Breast Care Helpline at 877-465-6636 to ask about options in your area.

If you have specific questions about the test or the cost, always check in with your doctor. But fear of discomfort, uncertainty about the procedure and worries about cost shouldn’t keep you from getting regular mammograms. This quick screening is one of the best ways to identify an early case of breast cancer and increase your chances of survival.