Separating the facts from the myths about mammograms

Published: Monday, October 17, 2022

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so you’re probably hearing quite a bit about mammograms. But how can you know what’s true—and what’s not?

Breast cancer is one of the most common conditions affecting women. In fact, one in eight American women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime.

Innovations in the past few decades, though, have made it easier to detect and to treat this type of cancer. As screenings became more common, treatment could begin earlier, when breast cancer is most easily treatable.

Mammograms remain the gold standard in breast cancer detection. But while this common screening is familiar for many women, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. That’s why we’re taking a few minutes to bust some myths about mammograms in today’s blog.

Myth 1:

Fact: Not true!

In the last decade, some health organizations have made changes in their breast cancer screening recommendations. Making sense of those recommendations can be a little confusing.

For example, the American Cancer Society recommends that women have the opportunity to have annual mammograms beginning at age 40, if desired, with annual mammograms beginning for all women at age 45. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, on the other hand, recommends that most women have a mammogram every two years beginning at age 50.

Gainesville Radiology Group and the Imaging Centers of NGHS follow the longstanding standards of the American College of Radiology (ACR). Annual screening mammography is recommended starting at age 40 for the general population (sooner in certain circumstances) and should continue annually as long as the patient’s health is good.

Here’s the bottom line: While the recommendations differ some, they all still include mammograms as a screening tool. Talk to your physician for personalized guidance based on your health, family medical history and other factors.

Myth 2:

Mammograms expose you to a lot of radiation.

Fact: The amount of radiation in a screening or diagnostic mammogram is minimal.

Mammograms are a type of X-ray, which uses a small amount of radiation to capture images of the breast tissue.

In the past, the radiation dose used in an X-ray like a mammogram was higher. But innovations in technology over the past few decades have decreased the amount of radiation needed to capture photos.

The risk is minimal. According to the American Cancer Society, the amount of radiation in a mammogram of both breasts is equal to the amount a woman is exposed to naturally in around seven weeks total.

Myth 3:

A thermogram is a better screening for breast cancer, and it doesn’t use radiation.

Fact: A thermogram should not be considered an alternative to a mammogram.

While some health practices are promoting thermography as a radiation-free way to detect breast cancer, it is not recommended.

Thermography, which shows a pattern of heat on or near the surface of the body, is approved only as a supplemental tool used alongside mammography—not as a substitute.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Thermography has not been shown to be effective as a standalone test for either breast cancer screening or diagnosis in detecting early stage breast cancer. Mammography is still the most effective primary screening method for detecting breast cancer in its early, most treatable stages.”

Myth 4:

Breast self-exams are more likely to find breast lumps than mammograms.

Fact: Formal breast self-exams, or BSEs, are actually no longer even recommended.

While it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with your breast tissue and to examine your breasts regularly for changes, these self-exams often miss lumps, leaving women with a false sense of confidence.

That’s because many lumps or changes in the breast tissue are tiny, particularly when they first develop. They simply cannot be detected by touching the breast and feeling for a noticeable lump. That’s why a mammogram is the gold standard—it captures an image that shows even tiny irregularities in the breast tissue.

Finding a lump on a mammogram before it can be felt means it can be treated in its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable and survivable.

Myth 5:

There’s only one kind of mammogram.

Fact: There are actually multiple categories and types.

To start with, mammograms are divided into two categories—screening and diagnostic. Screening mammograms are the ones you are probably most familiar with. Screening mammograms are done to screen for breast cancer. You have this type of mammogram on a regular basis.

Diagnostic mammograms, on the other hand, are recommended to patients when patients are experiencing a lump or other type of problem. This type of mammogram may be performed if an initial screening mammogram detects irregularities, if a lump is found, or even to help stage breast cancer once it is detected.

Next Steps

Are you due for a mammogram? Scheduling an appointment is easy! Get yours on the calendar today.