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Phoenix Forward

7 things you need to know before your first mammogram

Breast cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, killing 40,000 women per year. But early detection can often be the determining factor in survival and, thanks to recent improvements in both breast cancer awareness and mammogram technology, more women than ever are beating breast cancer. While most American women know mammograms are important, conflicting information can be confusing.

“We’ve recently had a lot of disagreement among experts on what the national mammogram screening guidelines should be,” says Vicki Greenberg, RN, MSN, FNP-BC , a family nurse practitioner and program manager for the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus. Here are some things you need to know before your first exam.

A nurse explains the procedure to her patient.

1. Start young.

“Based on my own experience, I recommend that women begin getting regular mammograms at age 40,” says Greenberg, adding “or at age 35 if you have a strong family history of breast cancer. If you aren’t sure about what to do, talk to your health care provider.”

“The latest statistics show that mammograms are 85 percent effective at detecting breast anomalies in post-menopausal women that can become cancerous within one year, and 55 percent within two years,” she says. “The numbers are somewhat lower for premenopausal women, at 65 percent within one year and 25 percent within two years. But early detection is even more essential in premenopausal women, because those cancers are far more aggressive.” 

2. Make room in your schedule.

Sure, most women in this age group are busy, but a mammogram takes only a few minutes.

3. Time your appointment correctly.

Premenopausal women should wait at least one week after their last menstrual cycle to prevent hormonal changes from affecting results, according to Greenberg.

4. Know what to expect.

Greenberg describes the mammogram process this way: “The breast is placed on a table at chest height, then a ‘roof’ comes down which compresses the breast and scans the tissue using digital X-ray technology. It’s a little uncomfortable, but not painful.”

5. Don’t be afraid.

“Mammograms are not painful when done properly,” says Greenberg. There’s also no need to be concerned about getting too much radiation from a mammogram. “It’s less radiation than you’d get on an airplane flight,” she explains.

6. Look forward to fast results.

Digital-based X-ray mammography technology, which provides instant, viewable results instead of relying on developing films, has improved detection results, according to Greenberg. “We can get mammograms sent to a radiologist electronically for immediate reading,” she says.

7. Follow up with self-exams.

Greenberg stresses the importance of monthly breast self-exams. “Many of the mammograms that occur outside of normal screening guidelines occur due to something a woman finds during her monthly breast self-exam,” she says. “I’ve had many patients who found lumps themselves. Those self-exams are very important.”

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