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Posted: Monday, October 20, 2014

Breast cancer and mammogram misconceptions

Each October, it begins. The color pink gradually starts popping up in everything from advertisements to social media feeds as businesses and groups begin promoting their events and showing their support for breast cancer survivors during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And while the whole month is dedicated to promoting breast cancer awareness, the battle against breast cancer is fought daily. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of death in women, and is particularly common in the United States, where women have approximately a one-in-eight lifetime risk of developing the disease. While knowing your risk factors and early detection are the best defenses against the disease, there still are a number of common misconceptions about breast cancer and mammograms, in particular.

Blount Memorial radiologist Dr. Kristen Carver says risk factors can be related to a woman’s lifestyle, genes or environment. “The two most-common risk factors for breast cancer, however, are being female and getting older,” Carver said. “For most of the women I have diagnosed, getting breast cancer is just bad luck. It does not discriminate, it happens at all ages and every woman is at risk, regardless of her risk factors,” she explained.

“I hear a lot of my patients say ‘I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, so I doubt I am at risk,’” Carver said. “This is an unfortunate misconception that results in women electively forgoing screening mammograms and breast checkups. The truth is, although a family history of breast cancer puts you at a higher risk, 80 percent of women diagnosed with the disease have no family history of breast cancer whatsoever. Another common myth I hear from women is ‘I don’t need a mammogram because I don’t have any symptoms of breast cancer.’ Again, this is completely untrue. In its earliest and most-treatable stage, breast cancer often causes no symptoms. For this reason, it’s critical for all women, including those with no symptoms, to follow through with mammograms and clinical breast exams annually beginning at age 40,” she explained.

Carver says there also are myths regarding the radiation given off during a mammogram. “A third frustrating myth I hear is that the radiation from mammograms causes cancer,” Carver said. “Radiation certainly is a downside to imaging, but digital mammography uses very low-dose radiation. The risks of this are minimal, particularly when compared to the benefits of potentially catching cancer at an early, treatable stage,” she said. “To help put this into perspective, flying on a commercial airliner from Tennessee to California exposes a woman to roughly the same amount of radiation as one mammogram,” Carver added.

“Finally, I hear many women say that having a mammogram and being called back for additional images creates unnecessary anxiety,” Carver said. “To that, I say ‘A little anxiety is okay, but having cancer and not knowing it is not.’ You should be more afraid of what you don’t know because the earlier breast cancer is found, the better the chances for successful treatment. Again, the best way to plan for early detection is to practice self-breast exams and get a yearly screening mammogram,” she explained.

Carver also emphasizes the importance of a healthy lifestyle. “Regardless of your underlying risk for breast cancer, a healthy lifestyle always is important,” she said. “You feel better, but you also are better prepared to withstand treatment if you were diagnosed with cancer,” she added.

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