Five reasons to be screened for breast cancer

New recommendations and guidelines about breast cancer screening seem to be in the headlines each day.

Many women are confused, but they don’t have to be.

Here are five reasons to get screened annually.

1. Mammograms save lives

The breast cancer mortality rate has dropped 35 percent since the 1980s — when widespread use of screening mammography began. Treatment options have improved, but detecting the early signs of breast cancer remains critical. Multiple randomized studies have shown that cancer screenings improve outcomes, even among women who have access to the latest cancer therapies.

2. Early identification equals easier treatment

On average, breast cancers found by mammography are half the size of the cancers found via physical breast examination. Smaller cancers are less likely to have spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. By finding cancers before they advance, screening tests reduce the need for aggressive treatments such as mastectomy or chemotherapy.

3. Family history may not play a role

Seventy-five percent of breast cancer patients don’t have family history of the illness. An annual mammogram is beneficial for all women, even those who believe they are low risk. A woman in the US has a one in eight risk — over the course of her lifetime — of being diagnosed. Each year, more than 200,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 die from the disease.

4. Younger women benefit from screening

Breast cancer can occur in any decade of life, but the risk begins to noticeably increase at age 40. Forty percent of all years of life lost to breast cancer occur in women who are diagnosed between age 40 and 49. Although some guidelines suggest starting later, studies have shown that annual mammography starting at age 40 saves the most lives.

5. Mammograms may not be enough

Women who have dense breasts — determined using mammography — have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Dense breast tissue can also make cancers more difficult to see on mammography. For women with dense breasts, ultrasound (or “sonography”) can help improve cancer detection. For some women who are at high risk due to family history, genetic conditions or other factors, breast MRI is recommended. Women who think they may be at increased risk should consult their physician.

Nina Vincoff, MD, is chief of the Division of Breast Imaging and chief of ambulatory strategy and patient experience at Northwell Health. She has more than 18 years of experience in radiology, specializing in women’s imaging, and is an assistant professor of radiology at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.