Welcome to our special month-long series in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, featuring Dr. Sharon Mass, our exclusive medical correspondent. She’s an OBGYN as well as a survivor. Stop back each week as we zero in on a different facet of the disease including genetic testing, the legacy of the pink ribbon and Dr. Mass’ own story. We’re starting with an overview of the disease and the latest advance in mammography.
Every day, our amBRAssadors™ field calls from breast cancer survivors. Breasts, bras, femininity and identity are all inextricably, powerfully linked:
• A woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes in America
• It’s the most common cancer in women worldwide
• It’s the second leading cause of cancer death in women
• 27% of all new cancer cases in women will be breast cancer
• In the U.S. alone, there are almost 3 million breast cancer survivors
Mammography is the only screening test that’s been shown to decrease the risk of dying from breast cancer. We sat down for a Q&A with Dr. Mass on this newest innovation in breast cancer detection.
Q: What’s my risk of developing breast cancer?
A: Women have a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The longer you live, the greater your odds. Your risk increases from 1 in 227 in your 30s to 1 in 26 in your 70s.
Q: How do I get screened for breast cancer?
A: There are three ways: breast imaging, a clinical exam and self-exams. Different organizations have varying recommendations about the value, timing and frequency of each. I go by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines: low-risk women start mammography screenings at 40; a mammogram is offered annually; women have breast self-awareness (in other words, knowing what’s normal and not normal for you; this may include breast self-examination); women have a clinical exam every 1-3 years between the ages of 20-39 and annually for women 40 and older.
Q: What are the different kinds of mammography?
A: There’s film mammography, digital mammography and the latest option, digital breast tomosynthesis or 3D mammography. From a patient perspective, they’re all the same—mammograms require breast compression. The difference is in the quantity and quality of the images produced. With digital breast tomosynthesis, multiple individual images are reconstructed into a series of thin high-resolution slices, making it easier to detect tumors.
Q: How does 3D mammography compare to traditional?
A: On the pro side, 3D mammography produces better imagery, is more sensitive to small tumors, and increases cancer detection rates while lowering the rate of false-positives and biopsies. That means less anxiety and inconvenience. Cons include the slightly higher (but still within FDA limits) dose of radiation, and the potential for supplemental fees.
Q: Who is 3D mammography best for?
A: At this time, there are no specific recommendations; anyone can have one. Fifty percent of women have dense breasts, making it harder to detect cancerous lesions on mammograms. When a radiologist reads that black-and-white X-ray image, fatty tissue is darker; dense tissue and cancer are white. Some data suggests women who have higher levels of breast density may benefit from a 3D mammogram as compared to traditional mammography.
Q: How widely available is 3D mammography?
A: That varies regionally. It’s offered in many academic medical centers and some independent radiology centers. Radiologists need additional specialized training to offer them. Insurance coverage also varies greatly. Many cover it just as with a traditional mammogram, but some centers charge the patient a supplemental fee, so be sure to ask before you go.
Want to learn more? Check out the rest of our series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month:
- Part Two – The Angelina Effect: Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
- Part Three – Breast Cancer Awareness: Pink is the New Black
- Part Four – “The Doctor Will See You Now, Doctor”: A Breast Cancer Survival Story
Sharon Mass, MD
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