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Demystifying Mammograms

mammogram, breast cancer, screening, mammography

No longer a one-size-fits-all approach, mammograms and breast cancer screening are still a mystery to some.

Since new breast cancer screening guidelines came out in 2015, women have heard a lot of conflicting advice about when—and how often—to get a mammogram.

The US Preventive Services Task Force suggests women ages 50-74 get a mammogram every other year. They also suggest women under 50 talk with their doctor to decide if they should start mammograms sooner, taking into consideration individual risk factors.

"Every woman's level of risk is different. Make the choice that's best for you."

The American Cancer Society advises women with average risk to begin annual mammograms at age 45, then switch to every other year at age 55.

What's a woman to do?

Dr. Catherine Dang, a surgical oncologist at Cedars-Sinai, recommends women start annual mammograms in their 40s and talk with their doctors about the risks and benefits.

"I still strongly believe that all women—even average risk women—should consider having annual mammograms in their 40s," she says. "The risk of breast cancer definitely rises as you get older."

The US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines were changed due to growing concerns over false positive test results that prompted needless additional tests and biopsies. They're also in line with the overall trend away from one-size-fits-all guidelines to a more individualized approach to healthcare.

"The US Preventive Task Force was concerned that false positives and unnecessary biopsies were causing harm," says Dr. Dang. "But mammograms for women between the ages of 40 and 50 do save lives."

All guidelines urge women and their healthcare providers to have frank discussions about the risks and benefits of screening, and for each woman to make an informed choice based on her situation.

The bottom line

"Women who feel confused should definitely talk to their healthcare provider, because every woman's level of risk is different," Dr. Dang says. "It's based on your family history, your reproductive history, and your medical conditions. Make the choice that's best for you."

To schedule a mammogram, talk to your healthcare provider.