How Often Should I Get a Mammogram?

Depending on your family history, the answer can be complicated

mammogram screening

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) says that the purpose of screening mammograms is to detect any issues in the breast as early as possible and get it appropriately diagnosed. It's the best way to find small, early-stage breast cancers, even before one can feel a lump. Smaller tumors require less treatment and survival rates are as high as 98 percent for early-stage breast cancer.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), a branch of HHS, updated its recommendations on mammograms and breast cancer screenings in 2009. Previous standards had stated that women should be screened for breast cancer annually, starting at age 40. The new standards changed this guideline. 

Women in Their 40s

The updated guidelines now recommend women age 40 and older have a mammogram every one to two years and that the decision to screen annually is up to the patient and doctor. The guidelines state that doctors should "take patient context into account, including the patient's values regarding specific benefits and harms."

However, if a woman is under 50, has a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, finds a lump while doing a breast self exam, or has nipple changes, she should see her doctor for a clinical breast exam and a referral for a diagnostic mammogram, even if she had a screening mammogram the previous year.

This recommendation that women between 40 and 49 years old should not have annual mammograms, but should discuss their screening with their doctors, is still extremely controversial and hotly debated. These updated mammogram guidelines have been adopted by some and continue to be rejected by others.

Women Aged 50 to 74

All of the government and non-profit institutions that make recommendations about mammograms agree that women aged 50 to 74 should have breast screening every two years. For women with a strong family history of cancer, or who have had a recent bout with breast cancer, their doctor may want them to be screened yearly. 

Risk of breast cancer increases with age. Women who are age 55 or older account for two out of every three cases of invasive breast cancer. If you find lumps or bumps between regularly scheduled mammograms, have them checked out, and ask if you should have diagnostic breast imaging done.

Women Over 75

When you're 75 and over, decisions like whether or not to have a screening mammogram should be discussed with your doctor and weighed against any other health issues you may have. There is not enough clinical evidence on the potential harm or benefits of having a mammogram past age 74, so you will need to consider your own health history before deciding. Even if you are in good health and expected to live to a good old age, your doctor may be unwilling to refer you for a mammogram, even though it's likely that medicare will help pay for it.

Mammogram Dates

Younger women should schedule a mammogram during the first 14 days of their menstrual cycle to reduce pain and increase accuracy. Prepare carefully—remember not to use deodorant that day and wear a comfortable bra under a two-piece outfit.

Two images of each breast will be taken to be sure that as much breast tissue as possible is included. Digital mammography is currently being used which requires low amounts of radiation and shorter exposures.

Hands-On Screening

You can still do your monthly breast self-exam to keep in touch with changes in your breasts. Your breasts will age along with the rest of your body, so allow for cyclical and natural changes.

If you are concerned about a lump, bump, breast pain, a strange rash, a change of skin color, or nipple discharge, visit your doctor for a clinical breast exam. Remember that between 80 percent and 85 precent of all breast lumps are benign and having a mammogram can help rule out breast cancer.

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View Article Sources
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  • Breast Cancer: Kinds of screening tests. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 1, 2010.
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  • Mammograms. National Cancer Institute. 08/14/2009.