Medically reviewed by
Dr. Noel Phipps
McLeod Breast Imaging Center
The American Cancer Society first recommended mammograms as a diagnostic tool for breast cancer in 1976. In the intervening 40-plus years a number of mistaken notions – or myths – sprouted about mammograms.
“These myths may have led a number of women to avoid a mammogram,” says McLeod Radiologist Dr. Noel Phipps. “We know early detection saves lives. To help you, let’s present some facts to debunk a few of those myths.”
Myth #1: Mammogram radiation causes cancer.
Mammograms use very low doses of radiation. Developments led to less radiation, while improving the accuracy. Today’s 3-D mammograms are covered by all government and private insurers. When weighed against early detection of a disease that touches 1 in 8 women, the miniscule amount of radiation is well worth it. It’s only about the same amount of radiation experienced in a chest X-ray.
Myth #2: Mammograms are often inaccurate.
Thanks to mammograms, the death rate from breast cancer has dropped 35% over the last 25 years. No diagnostic method is perfect. Mammograms are about 80% accurate in identifying cancer that’s present. A mammogram can pick up breast cancer as much as 3 years before it can be felt by a physician or through self-exam. False positives – when it appears there is cancer in the breast but there is not – may occur in one out of 10 women. A second screening proves that 98% of those women do not have breast cancer.
Myth #3: Mammograms are painful.
“Unpleasant” or “temporary discomfort” more accurately describes the sensation of compressing the breast for a clear image. Additionally, some people are more sensitive than others and a woman’s breasts are more sensitive just before or during her period. Take that into account when you schedule a mammogram.
Myth #4: You Don’t Need to Have Annual Mammograms Until You’re Age 50.
The thing to remember is that there are various opinions on the age recommended by different cancer-related organizations. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says a woman needs her first mammogram screening at age 50. However, the American Cancer Society places the starting age at 45. In 2019, The American Society of Breast Surgeons announced new guidelines, recommending annual mammograms begin at age 40. The president of the breast surgeon’s group said, “Routine screenings for women aged 40-49 has demonstrated that it reduces mortality by 15%”.
The American College of Radiology (ACR) and the Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) continue to recommend that women at average risk begin screening at age 40. In 2018, ACR and SBI were also the first to recognize that African American women are at high risk for the disease and should be screened as such.
ACTION YOU CAN TAKE
If you are in doubt, talk with your primary care physician. They’ll know if you have any issues — such as a family history or the BRCA gene — that will affect whether you need screening earlier.
Have a question? Ask a Cancer Specialist.