It’s October, and that means it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This important annual campaign seeks to raise awareness of a disease that affects so many women (and a smaller number of men)—and the people who love them—every year, and we want to do our part by sharing some information that may be helpful to our readers.
The Case for Mammograms
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has estimated that more than 276,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer and nearly 50,000 non-invasive cases will be diagnosed in American women this year.
Regular screening and early detection are key factors for successful outcomes, and mammograms are the most effective tool available. Recent studies show that mammograms correctly identify about 87 percent of breast tumors, with higher sensitivity in women over 50.
Who needs a screening, and when? The American Cancer Society offers the following guidance: for women ages 40-44, screening is optional; women 45-54 should have annual screenings; for those over 55, every other year or annual mammograms are recommended.
Screening During the Pandemic
In 2019, the FDA reported that more than 100,000 mammograms were performed daily in the United States. These days, however, as the coronavirus pandemic moves into its eighth month, many elective medical procedures have been postponed or canceled, and that’s true for breast cancer screening, as well. Only a fraction of last year’s numbers are being conducted. Many women have decided that the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 does not outweigh the benefits of early breast cancer detection by mammogram.
Depending on the rate of community spread in your area, mammograms may still be a safe option for you. If you have delayed your regular screening, the ACS recommends that you speak with your physician or other healthcare provider, who can help you understand the current risks and make an informed choice about whether or when to proceed.
Of course, as with any interaction these days, you’ll want to get assurance from the screening facility that they are carefully following current CDC guidelines regarding safe social distancing and disinfection in their waiting and exam rooms, so that the experience is safe for you, other patients, and healthcare staff.
What about Self-Exams?
Are breast self-exams an effective alternative to mammograms? Unfortunately, no. Most medical organizations don't recommend routine breast self-exams as a part of breast cancer screening. The Mayo Clinic reports that, despite some initial optimism, studies show that breast self-exams are not effective in detecting cancer or improving survival rates for women who do have breast cancer.
That said, even though the ACS and others no longer recommends monthly breast self-exams, they do encourage all women to become familiar with the appearance and feel of their breasts. If they notice a lump or any other changes, women should contact their doctor immediately.
Learning More and Helping Out
The Rose’s website is a good resource for more information about risk factors, treatments, and other concerns. This organization is very active in supporting patients as well as funding research, care, awareness campaigns, and advocacy.