“You have breast cancer” are words no woman wants to hear, but words that more than 234,000 American women will hear in 2013. Almost 40,000 women died from breast cancer in 2012. And women are not the only ones affected by breast cancer: this year it is estimated that 2,240 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
Scary words, scary numbers, but in 2013 a diagnosis of breast cancer is not a death sentence. Although the odds of developing breast cancer in one’s lifetime have increased from 1 in 20 in 1960 to 1 in 8 today, the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer has been dropping over the past decade, likely due to decreasing use of postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy. Also, death rates have been decreasing, thanks to early detection and better treatments.
Many women are confused about the role of early detection, about whether or not to do breast self exams, about when to get mammograms. The US Preventative Services Task Force fueled that confusion when it released a statement in late 2009 telling women to forego breast self exam, and to not start mammograms until age 50, and then just every other year. The task force recommendations basically came down to money — doing mammograms starting at age 40 costs more money, and fewer women in their 40s have breast cancer, although women who are diagnosed in their 40s often have more aggressive cancers and clearly have higher survival rates when diagnosed earlier.
The American Cancer Society, the American College of Surgeons, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all support mammograms beginning at age 40. The decision on when to start and how often to have a mammogram should be left up to each individual woman and her doctor. as should the decision on when to stop getting mammograms.
Many women still do not get regular mammograms. For a lot of these women, it is the cost, especially in these tough financial times. Fortunately, under the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare, screening mammograms are covered, starting at 40, with no copay or coinsurance payments required. For others it is fear — of pain from the mammogram, of radiation exposure, of being diagnosed with cancer. The compression of the breasts associated with mammograms is uncomfortable, but much less painful than chemotherapy, and it only lasts a minute. Radiation from mammograms is minimal now, with digital mammography and in fact is less than the amount of environmental radiation we are exposed to living at Lake Tahoe.
See your doctor, discuss your risks, have your mammogram. It just may save your life.
— Dr. Kelly Shanahan FACOG is a board certified gynecologist and founder of Emerald Bay Center for Women’s Health, with offices in South Lake Tahoe and Minden. She can be reached at 530-542-4961. Shanahan is also one of the 2.5 million survivors of breast cancer.