When to Get Your First Mammogram & 4 Key Points of Preventative Breast Health

It doesn’t have to be intimidating.

By Victoria Giardina

The thought of mammograms can be scary, especially when you think about a big piece of machinery squishing a delicate area of the body. After all, who can really say they aren't nervous about an appointment that can potentially lead to a scary diagnosis? It can be confusing to know when to get your first mammogram, how family history affects that decision, and more, but understanding what you're going into can help make the whole experience less intimidating. 

According to the CDC, breast cancer is the next most common cancer for women in the United States, after skin cancers. The CDC continues to say that it's also "the second most common cause of death from cancer among white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women." DoctorOz.com talked to Dr. Laurie Margolies, Chief of Breast Imaging and Professor of Radiology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital to get all the important details of mammograms, age by age. A mammogram can help save your life; here's what Dr. Margolies wants you to know.

When Should I Start Going for Mammograms?

If you’re under 50, mammograms might be the furthest thing from your mind. But, it turns out, Dr. Margolies has a younger age in mind when it comes to adopting a routine screening schedule: “One out of eight women can get breast cancer,” she says.

According to Dr. Margolies, “The average-risk person should start at age 40.” The American Cancer Society recommends that women ages 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year. It suggests that women age 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years or can continue yearly screening, depending on their history. It is important to note that the Society emphasized the importance of continuing to get screened, regardless of age. In fact, if a woman is healthy and expected to live for another 10+ years, she should continue to get mammograms: you can get breast cancer at any age. 

How Does Family History Play a Role in Prevention?

According to  the CDC about 3 percent of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. are a result of inherited genes. If you have one first-degree relative (sister, mother, daughter, etc.) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is higher than the average person. The more relatives you have with breast cancer, the more your risk factor can increase. 

Not all people with inherited genes go on to develop breast cancer. However, if breast cancer runs in your family, you should make your mammogram appointment sooner rather than later. Dr. Margolies recommends starting 10 years younger than the age of the family member when they were diagnosed. For example, if your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, you should begin screenings at the age of 35.

Don’t know your family history or come from a small family? Not to worry. Dr. Margolies recommends to start going for annual mammograms once you turn 40. 

What Can I Expect at My First Mammogram?

The first time you do anything — especially a medical procedure — can be nerve-wracking. Margolies thinks it's important to learn exactly what a mammogram screening entails before your appointment, so you know what to expect in order to lessen your anxiety. 

The purpose of a mammogram is to take pictures of your breasts. In order to do this, the breast is lightly compressed by a plastic plate to spread out the breast tissue and see any potential abnormalities in cells. As soon as the picture is taken, the compression is released and then the process is repeated on the other breast.

You may have questions about the equipment being used and whether or not it will expose you to radiation. Dr. Margolies assures that there is no dangerous risk to the patient during or after using the mammography tools. “Our current mammogram technology has such low-dose imaging that there is close to zero risk, if not zero risk, any problems from radiation would occur,” she says.

Are Mammograms Painful?

Mammograms are a different experience for everyone, but it's common to feel slight discomfort during the screening.  

“Some pain and discomfort is common, but it typically lasts only for a minute,” Dr. Margolies says. It can be common for older women to experience pain for a bit longer if they have fragile or dry skin. These women may even notice a slight tear underneath the breast where the skin is thinner. To treat this, Dr. Margolies recommends topical antibiotics and over-the-counter creams to heal the skin.

If you experience soreness after your mammogram appointment, Dr. Margolies recommends taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. 

The key takeaway is that women should not worry about the pain or the appointment: “It is OK to be a little anxious, but mammograms shouldn’t be debilitating anxiety,” Dr. Margolies says.

What Can I Do Now to Limit My Breast Cancer Risk?

There is not one thing that causes breast cancer. Things like age, family history, and overall habits can increase your risk. While age and family history are things that cannot be avoided or changed, keeping a healthy lifestyle is an important step for prevention. According to the CDC maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and limiting alcohol are all controllable factors that can help decrease your risk

While it has been in the news before, Dr. Margolies adds that it's important to note the idea that aluminum deodorant does not cause breast cancer. A 2014 review published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology found no substantial link between the aluminium in deodorants and breast cancer.

Dr. Margolies adds that while there is a very low risk of breast cancer from birth control pills, it's not completely off the list of risk factors. The use of birth control pills is a personal decision, and she does not advise patients to stop using them because of a potential breast cancer risk.

While there is no definitive guide to completely prevent breast cancer, Dr. Margolies recommends learning as much as you can from an early age. “Being aware of your breasts in your late teens and early 20s — getting used to feeling them — is the best advice I can give,” she says. “Women should make an appointment with their gynecologist, whether sexually active or not, around this age for early preventative measures.” 

Having an annual checkup is not just about sexual health, it is also a time for a breast examination to detect any abnormalities. “Knowing your breasts can help you detect any changes that would prompt a visit to the doctor. These might include changes around the nipple, nipple discharge, or a palpable mass,” says Dr. Margoiles. 

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Related:

8 Things to Know Before You Get a Mammogram

9 Surprising Things That Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk

Learn More About Mammograms

Article written by Victoria Giardina