Annual screenings key to fighting breast cancer

April 11, 2024
Annual screenings when you hit a certain age are essential to breast cancer prevention. A radiology tech explains a mammogram to a patient at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. Photo: UCHealth.
A radiology tech explains a mammogram to a UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center patient. Making sure you start annual mammograms at age 40 is essential for the early detection of breast cancer. Photo: UCHealth.

One in eight American women will develop breast cancer, a sobering statistic that makes an annual mammogram critically important to detect cancer at its earliest stage.

“The earlier we find it, the best chance we have to cure it, with the easiest treatment,” said Dr. Malaika Thompson, breast radiologist at UCHealth Gloria Gossard Breast Care Center in Steamboat Springs. “That is why getting an annual mammogram is so important.”

A new study from researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that many women ages 50 to 74 who should be getting mammograms are not. Missing a mammogram can be deadly snice about 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year in the U.S. The newest research found that women who lack access to doctors or transportation to a medical system may be unlikely to get regular mammograms. In addition, people who were struggling economically and were unemployed, underemployed, didn’t have access to healthy foods and were socially isolated were not getting recommended mammograms. To help everyone understand why regular mammograms are so important, we consulted with Thompson.

When should I get a mammogram?

All major medical societies with expertise in breast cancer agree that beginning mammography screening at age 40 saves the most lives. Annual screening is key. For women 50 and older, getting a mammogram only every other year can miss up to 30% of cancers.

Women should continue screening if they have no other life-limiting illnesses, and a variety of treatments can be explored for women at all stages of life if cancer is detected. For instance, women unable to have surgery for cancer can instead be treated with hormone-blocking medication.

“There is not one decade of life when most women will get breast cancer, as studies show it’s evenly distributed in each decade of life from a woman’s 40s through 80,’’ said Thompson. “In fact, one out of every six breast cancers are found in women in their 40s.”

Stats show that breast cancer screenings save lives

Major breakthroughs in breast imaging and diagnostic capabilities have contributed to breast cancer being so commonly diagnosed. “We can find it better and earlier because of the amazing technology we have,” said Thompson.

She said there is room for optimism, as the number of women dying of breast cancer has decreased by nearly 40% since the 1980s through early detection and medical advances.

“The knowledge, the research and the breakthroughs we’re seeing in breast cancer are incredibly positive,” said Thompson. “That’s why I encourage women to use all the tools we have, along with the progress we’re making, to keep yourself healthy.”

Many women often wonder what puts them at a higher risk for breast cancer. While increased weight, a sedentary lifestyle or consuming alcohol are lifestyle aspects that are thought to increase the odds, the two top risk factors come down to being a woman and age.

Another assumption is that women who have no family history of breast cancer can put off screening. But Thompson noted that over 75% of women who develop breast cancer have no significant family history of it.

Having a family history of cancer may indicate that earlier or specialized breast cancer screening is needed. There is an increased risk if you have a close blood relative or three or more family members who have had breast, ovarian or pancreatic cancer, as well as male relatives with prostate cancer.

“It’s important to know the medical history of those close to you, and whether there are red flags you need to be aware of that could affect your health,” said Thompson. “Talk to your relatives, and then talk to your health care provider.”

Don’t forget to make your annual mammogram appointment

With women leading hectic lives in the home and workplace, it can be easy to forget to make an annual breast screening appointment.

“Women lose track of time because we lead busy lives and tend to take care of others, whether it’s our children, spouse or parents,” said Thompson. “But it doesn’t take long – generally just a few minutes and perhaps slight discomfort — so let’s remember to keep reminding our mothers, daughters, partners and friends.”

And for those who get a call back from their provider that they need to return for more images after the initial screening? Thompson said approximately 80% of cases turn out to be normal after additional images.

“We understand it can be scary, but the screening does what it’s supposed to do,” she said. “It’s so important to get those pictures taken. Use the tools we have to keep you healthy and reduce your risk of dying from cancer.”

This story originally appeared in the Steamboat Pilot.


About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.