Every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with breast cancer. An estimated one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime and it’s the leading cause of cancer death in women around the world. If it’s someone close to you, just one is too many. That’s why we can’t let our guard down against this disease, even as we fight COVID-19.
Early detection is essential because most women have no symptoms and 85% of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history. Delaying screenings can allow a cancer to grow undetected and become more difficult to treat.
While traditional mammography has long been the gold standard for most women, 3D mammography provides another layer of testing which has been proven to find cancers - specifically early-stage cancers - at a higher rate.
So what’s the difference? Traditional or 2D mammography produces four images from the top and side of the breasts. The 3D approach generates a stack of 1 mm slice images or layers of breast tissue. Instead of viewing the complexities of your breast tissue in one flat image, the radiologist can examine the tissue one layer at a time. Fine details and small tumors are more clearly visible because they are no longer hidden by overlapping tissue, which is common with traditional mammography.
For women at higher risk because they have dense breasts or a family history of breast cancer, 3D mammography is often the preferred method of imaging. To determine what’s best for you, talk to your doctor and stay on schedule with screenings.
Current guidelines for women at average risk of breast cancer from the American Cancer Society are:
- Women with an average risk of breast cancer - most women - should begin yearly mammograms at age 45.
- Women should be able to start the screening as early as age 40, if they want to. It’s a good idea to start talking to your health care provider at age 40 about when you should begin screening.
- At age 55, women should have mammograms every other year - though women who want to keep having yearly mammograms should be able to do so.
- Regular mammograms should continue for as long as a woman is in good health.
- Breast exams, either from a medical provider or self-exams, are no longer recommended.
The American Cancer Society stopped recommending breast self-exam as a screening option for women of any age because they have not been found to reduce deaths from breast cancer. It’s still important to know how your breasts look and feel – and report any changes to your health care provider right away. If you have any concerns about getting your mammogram, talk to your doctor about the precautions health care facilities are taking to keep you safe. Many major organizations have guidelines on when to start mammograms and how often to do them. There are pros and cons to each. Your provider might choose to follow different recommendations.
(Laura Archuleta, MD, is a family medicine physician at CHI St. Alexius Health Mandan Medical Plaza. She specializes in caring for the whole family, including women’s health. Mandan Medical Plaza offers a full range of services, as well as 3D mammography.)