Woman getting a mammogram screening from her doctor.

Understand your mammogram screening

Biological sex and age are the two biggest risk factors for breast cancer. Females are more likely to develop the disease than males, and a female’s risk increases as she gets older. A mammogram screening can help determine potential for future breast cancer.

The details about a mammogram screening

Mammograms are x-rays that doctors use to examine breasts to detect potential breast cancer, while the screening is the actual result. These results can be helpful in early breast cancer detection.

But how often should you get a mammogram? If it’s been a while since you last looked this up, the guidelines may have changed a bit.

Recommendations for women with average breast cancer risk

Here are the CDC’s recommendations, meant for women at average risk of getting breast cancer. If, for example, a woman’s family or personal medical history put her at an increased risk of getting breast cancer, recommendations may be a bit different. So these recommendations should serve as a guideline and, of course, be considered along with your healthcare provider as you figure out what’s best for you.

  • Age 40-49 years: The CDC recommends that women begin talking to their healthcare provider about when to get screened for breast cancer.
  • Age 50-74 years: Women should get screened every 2 years. If you have a family history of breast cancer or a genetic tendency, you may need an MRA in addition to a mammogram.

Why isn’t everyone required to get yearly mammograms?

Because doctors have a harder time reading mammograms for women under the age of 40, women are not recommended regular mammograms until around 40. Reading mammograms before this point is difficult because the breast tissue of younger women tends to be more dense than that of women who are older.

Women under 40 also have a lower risk of developing breast cancer; according to the American Cancer Society, between the years 2004-2008, the median age of women diagnosed with breast cancer was 61; according to research from National Center for Biotechnology Information, roughly 7% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer receive a diagnosis before they’re 40 years old.

Providers don’t want to run the risk of getting a false positive for breast cancer from a mammogram, so they advise women to wait until they’re 40 when their breast tissue is less dense and when their risk of breast cancer is significantly higher.

Risk levels and mammogram frequency

There are generally four levels of risk associated with breast cancer: low risk, moderate to high risk, high risk, and significantly increased risk. Women are classified depending on personal factors such as age, a close family history, a personal history of breast cancer, or exposure to chest radiation. A woman’s risk of breast cancer plays a part in how often she gets a mammogram.

The general guidelines for mammogram frequency apply to women who are at an average risk of breast cancer; specifically, women who don’t have a personal or family history of breast cancer.

A personal decision

Mammograms aren’t a perfect method for detecting breast cancer, but they’re extremely helpful and can significantly reduce the chance that breast cancer goes undetected for a period of time. When and how often an individual gets mammograms depends on their personal breast cancer risk, as well as their preferences, and the potential benefits and risks of getting screened. You’ll want to discuss all of these things with your provider to determine how often is best for you to get mammograms.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff “Mammogram Guidlines: What are they?.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. March 2, 2016. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/mammogram/expert-answers/mammogram-guidelines/faq-20057759

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