October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every October countries across the world bring attention to the importance of breast cancer awareness, research, and education. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women (excluding skin cancer) with about 246,000 cases per year in the U.S alone. More than 40,000 women die each year from breast cancer.

Common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast
  • Nipple discharge
  • A new lump in the breast or underarm

How can you tell if you have any of these symptoms you ask? You need to do monthly self-breast exams.

Do You Need To Get Regular Mammograms Yet?

Recommendations about when to start screening mammograms and how often to repeat the study have become more of a personal decision in the last few years. Women should take the time to discuss with their health care provider the benefits, risks, and limitations of mammograms so they can decide the best course of action for their individual situation.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) have updated their screening recommendations in the last few years. The USPSTF is an independent panel of experts that have been authorized by Congress to make recommendations about preventive services. The task force recommendations put an emphasis on making a personal informed decision on the timing to start screening.

Currently, the American Cancer Society recommends:

  • Beginning yearly screening mammograms around the age of 45
  • Continue every other year screening exams at age 55.
  • Start at the age of 40 if you have a high risk of breast cancer

The USPSTF also recommends starting at age 40 if you are at a higher risk, and starting at age 50 and to continue screening mammograms every other year until age 74.

It’s important to know your risk for developing breast cancer as you make a decision about when to start breast cancer screening.

According to the Center for Disease Control, you should consider the following risk factors:

Age: Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.

Genetic Mutations: Women who have inherited genetic changes (BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations) are at a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

Dense breasts: Breast tissue that contains more connective tissue than fatty tissue are considered dense. Dense breast tissue makes it harder to see tumors on mammograms.

Family History of Breast Cancer: If you have a first degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) with breast cancer or multiple family members on either side of your family your risk is increased.

Previous radiation treatment to the chest: Having radiation to the chest or breasts prior to the age of 30 increases the risk for breast cancer.

Reproductive history: Starting menstrual periods prior to age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 raises the risk of getting breast cancer. In addition, having your first pregnancy after age 30, or never having a full-term pregnancy can increase your risk.

Lifestyle issues: Risks increase in women who are not physically active, women who are overweight or obese after menopause, and women who take hormone replacement therapy for more than five years. Risks also rise with the more alcohol you drink.

What Do I Need To Consider Before Getting My First Mammogram?

Breast cancer screening is a personal choice that should be made after considering your risk factors for breast cancer, the benefits of screening, and the limitations of the exam to include false positives and the additional testing that is required. If you are unsure what is right for you, work with your health care provider to make an informed decision.

If you have received a diagnosis of breast cancer or you’re nervous about going for your mammogram, absorbing the diagnosis with your doctor, or any other areas of support you need, please consider hiring a health advocate to support you during this time.