Because the tumor may be small or obscured a mammogram may not detect it and, possibly, create a false sense of security. High-risk patients usually get a screening every six months, alternating between an MRI and a mammogram. Older women who may be at risk include persons who have been exposed to chest radiation, or who have had a prior cancer. Women who have tested negative for one of the known cancer mutations (such as oncogenes and tumor supressor genes), but have a family history of breast cancer, could be at high risk. There are women whose family histories are incredibly strong, but have yet to get screened, Mortimer continued. “Those women should be aggressively screened as well.”
Being a woman is considered the main risk factor for developing breast cancer, although men do contract the disease but in much fewer numbers. The National Breast Cancer Foundation says about five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary. That is, they result directly from gene defects (mutations) inherited from a parent. The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer are found in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In normal cells, these genes help prevent cancer by making proteins that keep the cells from growing abnormally. If you have inherited a mutated copy of either gene from a parent, the foundation believes you have a high chance of contracting breast cancer during your lifetime. In some families, it can be as high as 80 percent, but on average the risk factor is in the range of 55 to 65 percent.
Notwithstanding the factors leading to discovery of cancer percentage and numbers may be of little solace to the woman who, at minimum, must undergo surgery when any mistake on the operating table can be life-threatening. Sometimes a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery may be called for and, with good fortune, the cancer may be removed entirely. Recurrent breast cancer means the disease has returned after being treated. It may come back in the breast, chest wall or in other parts of the body. The advanced-stage cancer is often a terminal diagnosis in which medical help is futile.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, early detection of breast cancer is imperative for reducing mortality rates, sometimes by as much as 15 to 25 percent depending on the mass of the tumor. They recommend that women ages 40 to 49 speak with their healthcare provider about when to have a mammogram.
Consider factors, officials stress, about your risk level and your personal beliefs about the potential benefits and pitfalls of screening. County officials believe women ages 50 to 74 should have a mammogram every two years. If you’re over 75 years, they suggest you consult your doctor because radiation from the mammography can sometimes leave a senior much weaker and more fragile compared to the effect on a 20- or 30-year-old.
Mortimer said that mammograms are, indeed, a “valuable” diagnostic tool, but like all cancer screening tools, must be used appropriately. She added that the most beneficial approach is one that takes into account a woman’s individual risk factors and needs. “Getting an annual mammogram does deliver radiation,” Mortimer explained. “If you don’t need to get it, why expose yourself?”