What every woman needs to know about breast cancer screenings

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A mammogram is a life-saving tool that uses special x-ray images to detect growths or changes in breast tissue.

According to Nidhi Sharma, M.D., a breast radiologist at Cleveland Clinic, all women should at least begin talking about mammograms with their doctor by age 30.

“It is so important for all women to go see their primary care physicians every year, and hold a good discussion about which testing is right for them,” she said. “Making an informed, shared decision is one of the most important things the patient can do for themselves to ensure they are screened appropriately and the cancers are caught in a timely fashion. We also recommend that women should discuss by at least age 30, whether they require high-risk screening versus average-risk screening.” 

With several different sets of breast cancer screening guidelines, knowing when to start the process can seem confusing.

In addition to the standard two-dimensional mammogram, other methods of testing for breast cancer include ultrasounds, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses magnet and radio waves to produce a clear image.

Dr. Sharma said it’s particularly important for women to know if they have ‘dense’ breast tissue – because dense tissue can make breast changes difficult to see in a standard 2D mammogram.

For these women, a 3D mammogram is often recommended.

“There’s screening tomography, which is a three-dimensional mammogram, which can look at dense breast tissue better than just a regular 2D mammogram,” said Dr. Sharma. “And that is also a shared decision to be made with a primary care provider, to see if you fall into that category and if that test would be best suited for you.” 

Dr. Sharma said starting early and regular screening can help detect breast cancer at an early stage and prevent extensive surgery and additional treatment regimens.

She said women who are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, including those with a strong family history, a prior breast cancer diagnosis, or exposure to high dose radiation for lymphoma at a young age, need to start screening much earlier than women of average risk.

The American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging recommends women of average risk start screening at age 40 and continue as long as they are in good health.

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