Mammograms Starting at Age 40 Can Save Lives

Early detection of breast cancer can save lives.

But the debate continues on when to start breast cancer screening mammograms. Thedacare follows recommendations from the American Cancer Society that early testing is crucial in the fight against the deadly disease.

“It’s a way of detecting breast cancer before you can feel it,” said Paul Sletten, MD, ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca, adding that early testing is “for all women. For women with a family history of breast cancer, we are certainly more adamant in encouraging it.”

The American Cancer Society recommends women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health. Although about 1 woman in 69 will develop breast cancer in her 40’s, the organization says waiting until age 50 and only doing a screening every two years will cause many women to die needlessly.

“The mammogram allows detection of some types of breast cancer one to two years before you or your health care provider would be able to feel it,” said Erica Stoeger, advanced practice nurse prescriber at New London Family Medical Center and ThedaCare Physicians – New London. “The smaller it is when detected, the greater the chance of a cure.”

Dr. Sletten said digital technology can help in examining the breast. “Digital technology has largely eliminated the need for repeat studies and streamlined the process tremendously,” he said.

While an early test before age 50 is controversial, Dr. Sletten said that at “that age group the breast cancers are more rare but faster growing.”

The mammogram test itself has gotten a bad rap but it is the best way to detect cancer. “I think it's wise to tell a patient that it's going to be uncomfortable for a few seconds,” said Stoeger, who recommends patients not wear jewelry, deodorant, powders, lotions of perfumes on the underarms or chest. “It is recommended that these products not be used the day of a mammogram as they can make it difficult to interpret the results correctly.”

Stoeger said it is important for patients and doctors to talk about screening and prevention guidelines. “You should evaluate your personal risks with your heath care provider to determine the appropriate age to begin screening mammograms,” she said.

Dr. Sletten agreed. “Go to a doctor that you trust and that is willing to listen,” he said. “I think it would be a very rare physician that would not order such a test if a woman requested one. If you don’t feel like you have that, then you need to keep looking for another provider.”