Mammography is a crucial tool for detecting breast cancer in its early stages, but some people do have concerns about its safety. These questions are valid, personal and something each person should feel comfortable discussing with their provider in the context of their specific situation. For most people, the evidence is clear: the benefits of early detection in terms of increased survival rates far outweigh the concerns. Let’s break down some of the most common safety concerns:
Mammography uses X-rays, a type of ionizing radiation. While ionizing radiation can damage DNA and potentially increase cancer risk—the radiation dose used in mammography is very low, equivalent to the natural background radiation a person is exposed to over a few months.
What most people don’t know is compression improves the quality and safety of mammography. While compression can be uncomfortable, it is brief and doesn’t pose a risk of injury. Plus, the benefits it offers in terms of image quality and reduced thickness of the breast tissue to be imaged improve the overall safety and effectiveness of mammography.
Screening mammography today is highly sensitive. About half of people getting annual mammograms over a 10-year period will have a ‘false positive’ at some point—but it’s important to know this does not mean someone has cancer; it means there’s an area of concern the radiologist needs to see better. While this can increase anxiety, it is part of the trade-off for the technology’s sensitivity and ability to detect breast cancer as early as possible. Follow-up imaging and other diagnostic procedures are used to further assess abnormalities detected on a screening exam.
Overall, screening mammograms miss about 1 in 8 breast cancers present at the time of screening. This is why it’s so important to follow all the recommendations for screening and report any new or changing breast symptoms, such as lumps, pain or nipple discharge—even if a recent mammogram was negative. People at a higher risk of breast cancer should talk with their provider and can consider supplemental screening methods to compliment mammography.
Previously, recommendations were to only evaluate for breast cancer during pregnancy if someone noticed a lump or other concerning symptom. As people have children later in life and our understanding of risk and tools for individualized risk assessment become more sophisticated, we have updated our recommendations to be aligned with the American College of Radiology: pregnant or lactating people can continue or begin breast cancer screening with minimal risk to the pregnancy and fetus.
Mammograms have been shown to significantly reduce breast cancer mortality. Detecting breast cancer at an early, localized stage increases the chances of successful treatment. WHA’s clinicians help each person consider their specific risk factors, understand the best available science and decide what’s right for them. What are you waiting for? Schedule your wellness visit today!