Mammograms are a front-line defense in the war on breast cancer. But do you need a screening every year?

A mammogram is an X-ray used to identify signs of breast cancer. Different views of the breast are taken so that doctors have a more complete picture of breast tissue.

Mammograms are used in two ways: screening and diagnosis. A screening mammogram is a preventive measure used to detect signs of breast cancer in a woman without symptoms. A diagnostic mammogram might involve extra imaging of breast tissue to help doctors see a more complete picture of the breast.

The benefits of having a mammogram far outweigh any risks associated with the dosage of radiation exposure.

Is it time for a mammogram?

In the past, doctors have recommended that women age 40 and over have an annual mammogram to spot undetected cancer. While experts agree that breast cancer screening has clear benefits, the frequency of mammograms varies among respected cancer organizations.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women age 50 to 74 who have no signs or symptoms of breast cancer have a biennial mammogram screening, or a screening every two years. For women at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, a mammogram is recommended for women beginning in their 40s.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recently changed their recommendations and now advocate for annual mammograms for women age 45 to 54, and then a mammogram every other year. For women with a higher risk of developing breast cancer, an annual mammogram and an MRI are recommended.

“Mammograms are an essential tool for detection of early-stage breast cancers, with cure rates approaching 100 percent for those with favorable disease treated in a timely and appropriate manner by the experts,” said Jason Ye, MD, assistant professor of clinical radiation oncology at Keck School of Medicine of USC and a radiation oncologist at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine of USC. “All major guidelines, including USPSTF, ACS and American Society of Breast Surgeons, recommend a patient have a discussion with her physician about mammograms starting at the age of 40, or earlier in certain cases.

By thoroughly going over family history and other risk factors, she and her doctor can come up with an informed and individualized decision on when to start screening for breast cancer.”

One study on screening guidelines found that a woman’s menopausal status was a better indicator of mammogram frequency. Postmenopausal women may be safely screened every two years, whereas premenopausal women who are undergoing screening may choose to be screened annually to increase their chance of early detection of breast cancer.

If you notice changes in your breasts, such as thickening, tenderness or if you feel a lump, you should see a physician as soon as possible.

By Heidi Tyline King

As one of the eight original National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at Keck Medicine of USC is one of the preeminent academic medical institutions in the country. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting https://cancer.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.