The month of October is synonymous with breast cancer. Every year cancer organisations and charities intensify the awareness of the disease during this month in a bid to curb its prevalence. Breast Cancer Awareness Month also serves to raise funds for research into the cause, prevention and treatment of this type of cancer.
Much of the focus when it comes to combatting breast cancer is on early detection and treatment. Educating women on the benefits of regular screening exams has taken centre stage in the last few years because most medical experts agree that there’s a better chance of survival if breast cancer is found early.
The primary method of screening for breast cancer is mammography. This is a painless, low-energy X-ray which examines the human breast for abnormalities such as masses or microcalcifications. It’s believed that regular mammograms are the most accurate method to detect early signs of breast cancer. In fact, experts claim that irregularities can be detected up to three years before they can be felt through self-examinations and examinations by health care professionals.
But as with most things in the medical fraternity, mammograms have not gone without controversy and debate.
About a decade ago some medical associations questioned the necessity and benefits of regular mammograms. Some even claimed that this procedure may cause breast cancer as opposed to identifying it. Since then intense research, and debate, has been done on the topic. The results speak for themselves.
It’s undeniable that several studies showed that mammograms are not perfect. There have been cases where normal breast tissue has hidden breast cancer and other cases where an abnormality was incorrectly diagnosed as cancer. However, these cases have been far and few between and the conclusion is that mammograms are still the best defence against breast cancer. Finding breast cancers early with mammography has also meant that more women treated for breast cancer have been able to keep their breasts. When caught early, localised cancers can be removed without resorting to breast removal (mastectomy).
This brings about another important question – when should a woman start annual breast cancer screening? Again, the medical fraternity is divided on this, but the consensus is that women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. Women between the ages of 40 and 44 are advised to do so at least once during these ages, especially if there is a family history of breast cancer. Women 55 and older should switch to doing mammograms every two years. In addition to mammograms, it’s also recommended that women of all ages do regular self-examinations and get regular breast examinations by an experienced health care professional.
Important things to remember about mammograms