How Important is a Mammogram?

Mammography technician in blue uniform assists a patient undergoing annual mammogram screening.

by Vivian Lim, MD, Diagnostic Radiologist

Your girlfriend confides that she simply hasn’t had time to go in for her annual mammogram, and you confess that you’re overdue, too. No big deal, right?

Actually, it is a big deal.

Doctors use mammograms, or breast X-rays, to check for cancer. They’re the most effective tool available right now for detecting breast cancer. In fact, mammograms can identify cancer several years before you can feel a lump depending on the size of your breasts and where the cancer started.

Benefits of annual mammogram screenings

Annual mammogram screenings can catch cancer before it has a chance to spread throughout your body, making treatment more difficult and your outlook less promising.

Still not convinced that mammograms matter? Consider these facts:

  • You have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in your life.
  • Every year, more than 200,000 women learn that they have breast cancer.
  • Thanks to mammogram screenings, the number of lives lost to breast cancer has dropped by 30 percent since 1990.
  • Women in their 40s who get annual mammogram screenings have a 15 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer than their peers who skip mammograms.
  • Women ages 50 to 69 who get annual mammogram screenings reduce their chances of dying from breast cancer by up to a third in comparison to peers who don’t get screened.

No more excuses! Schedule your annual mammogram

Women have a lot of reasons for skipping or putting off mammograms. Believe us, we’ve heard it all. You’ve got excuses? We’ve got solutions that we hope will motivate you to just do it.

Excuse #1: “Mammograms hurt too much.”

Breast compression is the only way to spread out breast tissue and get a clear X-ray. This process can be uncomfortable. You should let your mammography technician know if you’re experiencing pain. She may be able to lighten up the compression or readjust your position for better comfort. Keep in mind that the actual compression only lasts a few seconds, and those few seconds of discomfort can be life-saving.

You can try taking these steps to make your next screening a little more pleasant:

  • Schedule your appointment for the week after your menstrual period when your breasts are less tender.
  • Go to a breast care center with experienced mammography technicians. It’s best to choose a center with skilled staff who exclusively perform breast cancer screenings on women every single day. They have tricks for making the process as pain-free as possible.

Excuse #2: “I’m not high risk, so I don’t need a mammogram every year.”

Nearly 75 percent of women who get breast cancer have no notable risk factors. They have no family history of breast cancer, no known breast cancer gene mutation and no previous radiation to the chest. The American College of Radiology estimates that you increase your odds of cancer going undetected by 30 percent when you go every two years for a mammogram instead of yearly.

Excuse #3: I can’t afford a mammogram.

The Affordable Care Act requires health insurance plans to cover annual mammogram screenings for all women ages 40 and older. You don’t even have to provide a co-pay. Some national breast cancer organizations sponsor low-cost or free mammogram programs for low-income, uninsured or underinsured women. Our staff at Scripps Health can provide you with contact information for programs like these in your area. In addition, many breast care centers, including Scripps, will set up a payment plan if you need it.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by Vivian Lim, MD, a diagnostic radiologist at Scripps Clinic in San Diego. Learn more about breast care at Scripps.