Are Mammograms Always Safe?

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The thought of getting breast cancer strikes fear in most women. Mammograms and breast self-exams (BSEs) are usually recommended to reduce the chances of getting breast cancer. At one point, it was recommended that women 40 and older get a mammogram every other year, then every year starting at age 50. However, the current consensus among most professionals is to recommend various time frames depending on factors such as breast size, medical history, and whether or not the patient has implants. As with many medical areas, there are fears associated with mammograms and their potential effectiveness. These include:

1. The Radiation in Mammograms

Often, women will ask about the possibility of mammograms causing cancer, and whether it is safe to get a mammogram on a regular basis. However, a recent study that compared 100,000 women in the 40-74 age range found the rate of radiation-based cancer to be roughly 125 women, with 16 deaths. The same study found that over 960 lives were saved by the screening, so the benefits far outweighed the risks involved with the radiation.

In women with larger breasts, it is sometimes recommended that they get a mammogram every other year until age 74—when most doctors agree that mammograms can stop altogether—instead of every year. This is because larger breasts require more x-ray views than women with normal-sized breasts. A regular mammogram uses two views, but women with larger breasts usually require four views—which means they are exposed to more radiation during a mammogram. In this case, many doctors are now telling women with large breasts to get a mammogram every other year, unless there is a family history of breast cancer or some other high-risk factor. Women with normal-sized breasts can get regular mammograms every year from age 50 to 74.

2. Mammograms and Sagging Breasts

Women also may worry about mammograms causing sagging breasts, but there has been no research to support this. Saggy breasts have been associated with many things, including a high-fat diet, smoking, aging, and regular sun-tanning; however, having mammograms does not make your breasts sag. Some women try exercises to increase their breast size and firm up their breasts, but since breasts are made completely of fat, this doesn’t help much. If you are looking to prevent saggy breasts, exercises to strengthen the underlying chest muscles can give the appearance of upright breasts, so these types of exercises are not a bad idea. Just don’t expect your breasts to look perfect just because you’re exercising them!

3. Mammograms and Breast Implants

Women may also think that, because they have breast implants, they can forgo their mammograms—but that is simply not the case. Of course, your doctor may recommend the every-other-year rule if you have implants, just as they do for women with large breasts, but whether you have implants or not, mammograms are essential to most women. Even for women who have had a mastectomy, it is recommended that they have regular mammograms to view the remaining underlying breast tissue.

4. Some Final Thoughts

Most women should not be afraid to get mammograms, but if you have any questions about your particular situation, it is highly recommended that you speak to your doctor.

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