Myths about mammograms: Don’t skip this lifesaving screening

October 17, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

Mammograms remain the gold standard in breast cancer screening and the best way to detect early breast cancer or pre-cancerous calcifications and other changes before they create potentially life-threatening problems.

"Our goal is to find things before they become invasive cancer," said Christine Gresik, MD, fellowship trained breast surgeon with Edward-Elmhurst Health, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health. "The earlier we find cancers that have not spread the more curable they are."

While some patients may worry about the amount of radiation exposure in a mammogram, Dr. Gresik is quick to reassure them that the level of radiation from the screening is safe, and definitely outweighs the risk of skipping the vital exam recommended annually for women over 40.

The modern, 3D mammograms give a smaller dose of radiation than earlier models, an amount that is less than you are exposed to on a 3-hour plane ride, said Dr. Gresik.

Another myth Dr. Gresik regularly encounters is patients without a family history of breast cancer who believe they are not at risk or don't need screening. One in eight women will get breast cancer and 80% of those women are the first in their family to be diagnosed with the disease, she said.

Familial or genetic cases of breast cancer represent a very small portion of overall cases and therefore every woman carries some risk for the disease whether it runs in their family or not.

Unfortunately even though mammograms are covered by insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, and available for uninsured women in many area clinics, compliance for annual screening remains well below ideal levels.

Many women continue to underestimate their risk, and miss the opportunity to invest in their health with valuable screening. "I hear from patients things like I work out, I don't eat fast food, or I have small breasts so I won't get breast cancer," said Dr. Gresik, who reinforced the fact that these and other myths put woman at risk.

For women with dense breast tissue, ABUS* or automated breast ultrasound, screenings are recommended in addition to mammograms. The ultrasound waves won't pick up the calcifications detected by mammograms, but they can discover about 15% of solid tissue tumors that are not well seen on mammograms of very dense breasts. 

For women at high risk, generally defined as more than a 15-20% lifetime chance of getting breast cancer like those with identified genetic mutations, breast MRI screenings are also recommended, but it's important for individuals to talk with their physicians to determine the best individual screening strategy.

"Patients ask me what can I do to prevent breast cancer," said Dr. Gresik. "and the number one correlation with cancer diagnoses is an elevated BMI." So, in addition to recommending annual screenings, she counsels patients to maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise.

"I tell patients heart healthy is breast healthy," she added. A diet that is high in protein, fruits and veggies with only moderate fat consumption and moderate alcohol intake and at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three days a week is recommended.

*Medicare patients should check their individual coverage regarding ABUS screening.

Learn more about mammograms and schedule online.

Breast cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. The cancer experts at Edward-Elmhurst Health will partner with you every step of the way. Learn more.

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