Exploring mammogram myths and misconceptions

ByCatherine D. Carruthers, MD, FACS, Breast Surgeon at Main Line Health WPVI logo
Friday, October 30, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Catherine D. Carruthers, MD, FACS

Breast Surgeon at Main Line Health

Checking for cancer or for conditions that may become cancer is an important health step everyone can take. Annual screenings, including mammograms, can help doctors find several types of cancer earlier than they would be found without screening. This is important because when abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it's more likely that it will be treated successfully.

Despite this evidence, only about 65% of women over age 40 have had a mammogram in the past two years. There are a number of reasons for this-fear about the results, a busy schedule, anxiety about the screening process-but none of these should keep you from getting this potentially lifesaving screening.

Here are some of the most common remarks from women about why they've not yet made their mammogram appointment-and the truth behind them:

I'm afraid that my mammogram will find something.

It's normal to be anxious about the results of your mammogram, or assume the worst if your doctor calls you for a follow-up, but that shouldn't stop you from seeking care. According to the American Cancer Society, about 10 percent of women who have a mammogram will be called back for follow-up testing or a biopsy. Having an abnormal mammogram doesn't mean that you have cancer, but additional testing or possibly a biopsy may be needed to find out what is going on.

Most hospitals now offer digital breast tomosynthesis, a type of mammogram that uses several X-ray images from different angles to create a three-dimensional view of the breast. This allows providers to make a more accurate diagnosis, meaning it's less likely you'll be asked to come back in for follow-up imaging. If a lesion is detected on your mammogram, digital breast tomosynthesis also offers a closer look at its precise location in your breast to eliminate unnecessary additional testing.

Main Line Health offers digital breast tomosynthesis at nine convenient health centers and hospital locations throughout the Philadelphia.

If your mammogram does find something, your provider can start to discuss ways to diagnose the problem, and if cancer is detected, treatment and support with you. Cancer is a difficult and overwhelming diagnosis, but the earlier your cancer is detected, the more effectively it can be treated.

Mammograms are painful.

While every woman's pain tolerance is different, most women would describe their mammogram as uncomfortable rather than painful. You may experience some pinching or pressure because of the position of your breasts between the panels of the X-ray machine, but this is necessary to get an accurate picture of the breast.

To manage your discomfort, try to schedule your mammogram during the middle of your cycle when your breasts may be less sensitive.

Many hospitals recognize that the fear of a painful exam is keeping women from scheduling a mammogram and are investing in equipment to make these exams more comfortable. Main Line Health hospitals now uses SmartCurve mammography panels, which are designed to reflect the natural shape of a woman's breast and reduce pinching and discomfort. SmartCurve panels are available at all Main Line Health hospitals and breast centers.

Don't mammograms use radiation? I don't want to be exposed to that.

Mammograms do require radiation, but not nearly enough to cause you harm or put your health at risk. The dose of radiation delivered during your mammogram is equivalent to about six months of environmental radiation, the kind that you are exposed to during daily living.

I'm in my seventies and have been getting mammograms for years. I don't need to keep having them.

Cancer screenings are important for people of all ages. Even if you've had a clean bill of health for years, you still need to continue annual mammograms unless your provider tells you otherwise.

In some situations, your provider may recommend that you no longer need to be screened or can be screened less frequently, but this is not a decision you should make on your own.

I don't want to go back to a hospital or doctor's office yet.

Research has shown that Americans are delaying routine care, including cancer screenings, because of concerns about safely returning to their doctor's office during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's okay to want to limit your risk of being exposed to coronavirus, but don't let it come at the expense of your health. Hospitals and provider offices across the country are keeping patients safe by limiting visitors, screening patients, and implementing new safety protocols.

Tending to your health is always essential. If you are a woman with average breast cancer risk and it has been more than a year since your last mammogram, don't wait to make your appointment.

Main Line Health makes it easy to get this life-saving test by offering screening mammograms at convenient locations throughout the Philadelphia region. Schedule your appointment online or by calling 484.580.1800. For your convenience, we offer weekend and evening hours, as well.