Breast Cancer Basics – What You Should Know About Mammograms And Risk Factors

May 4, 2012
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The goal of the Paint the Town Pink campaign is to get women, age 40 and older, to schedule their annual mammograms and to raise funds for screening mammograms for women who can’t afford them. Here are questions and answers about mammography and breast cancer from the National Institute of Cancer.

What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast.
Mammograms can be used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease. This type of mammogram is called a screening mammogram. Screening mammograms usually involve two x-ray pictures, or images, of each breast. The x-ray images make it possible to detect tumors that can’t be felt. Screening mammograms can also find microcalcifications (tiny deposits of calcium) that sometimes indicate the presence of breast cancer.
Mammograms can also be used to check for breast cancer after a lump or other sign or symptom of the disease has been found. This type of mammogram is called a diagnostic mammogram. Signs of breast cancer may include pain, skin thickening, nipple discharge, or a change in breast size or shape; however, these signs may also be indicators of benign conditions. A diagnostic mammogram can also be used to evaluate changes found during a screening mammogram or to view breast tissue when it is difficult to obtain a screening mammogram because of special circumstances, such as the presence of breast implants.

How are screening and diagnostic mammograms different?
Diagnostic mammography takes longer than screening mammography because more x-rays are needed to obtain views of the breast from several angles. The technician may magnify a suspicious area to produce a detailed picture that can help the doctor make an accurate diagnosis.

What are the benefits of screening mammograms?
Early detection of breast cancer with screening mammography means that treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it has spread. Results from randomized clinical trials and other studies show that screening mammography can help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74, especially for those over age 50.

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What are the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) recommendations for screening mammograms?
Women age 40 and older should have mammograms every one to two years. Women who are at higher than average risk of breast cancer should talk with their health-care providers about whether to have mammograms before age 40 and how often to have them.

What factors increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer?
The strongest risk factor for breast cancer is age. A woman’s risk of developing this disease increases as she gets older. The risk of breast cancer, however, is not the same for all women in a given age group. Research has shown that women with the following risk factors have an increased chance of developing breast cancer:

Personal history of breast cancer
Women who have had breast cancer are more likely to develop a second breast cancer.

Family history
A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, and/or daughter have been diagnosed with the disease, especially if they were diagnosed before age 50. Having a close male blood relative with breast cancer also increases a woman’s risk of developing the disease.

Genetic alterations (changes)
Inherited changes in certain genes (for example, BRCA1, BRCA2, and others) increase the risk of breast cancer. These changes are estimated to account for no more than 10 percent of all breast cancers. However, women who carry certain changes in these genes have a much higher risk of breast cancer than women who do not carry these changes.

Breast density
Women who have a high percentage of dense breast tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer than women of similar age who have little or no dense tissue in their breasts. Some of this increase may reflect the “masking” effect of fibroglandular tissue on the ability to detect tumors on mammograms.

Certain breast changes found on biopsy
Looking at breast tissue under a microscope allows doctors to determine whether cancer or another type of breast change is present. Most breast changes are not cancer, but some may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

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Reproductive and menstrual history
Women who had their first menstrual period before age 12 or who went through menopause after age 55 are at increased risk of developing breast cancer. Women who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 30 or who have never had a full-term pregnancy are also at increased risk of breast cancer.

Long-term use of menopausal hormone therapy
Women who use combined estrogen and progestin menopausal hormone therapy for more than five years have an increased chance of developing breast cancer.

Radiation therapy
Women who had radiation therapy to the chest (including the breasts) before age 30 have an increased risk of developing breast cancer throughout their lives. This includes women treated for Hodgkin lymphoma. Studies show that the younger a woman was when she received treatment, the higher her risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

Studies indicate that the more alcohol a woman drinks, the greater her risk of breast cancer.

DES (diethylstilbestrol)
The drug DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. Women who took DES during pregnancy may have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. The effects of DES exposure on breast cancer risk in their daughters are unclear and still under study.

Body weight
Studies have found that the chance of getting breast cancer after menopause is higher in women who are overweight or obese.

Physical activity level
Women who are physically inactive throughout life may have an increased risk of breast cancer. Being active may help reduce risk by preventing weight gain and obesity.

Additional information about breast cancer and mammography is available from the National Institute of Cancer at the National Institutes of Health at

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