September 28, 2021

Everything you need to know about mammograms

Breast cancer screening rates have dropped during COVID-19, but doctors say it’s essential to stay up to date.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States, and the second-leading cause of cancer death. Fortunately, regular mammograms greatly increase the chance of detecting breast cancer early, when it’s easier to treat and survival rates are highest.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, cancer screening rates dropped due to stay-at-home orders and concerns about catching the virus. While the number of mammograms is rebounding, rates among Hispanic and Asian women are still lower than average.

Alison Sandberg, MD, a breast radiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, explains why it’s important to stay up to date on breast cancer screening mammograms.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast and is used to screen for breast cancer. Mammograms can detect tumors that are too small for you or your doctor to feel and can catch some breast cancers early, when they may be more easily treated.

When should I start getting mammograms, and how often should I get them?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Start by having a conversation with your doctor to determine your individual breast cancer risk. He or she will ask you about your personal and reproductive history and the history of breast cancer in your family.

“This is especially important for women of African American or Ashkenazi Jewish descent, who may be at higher risk,” said Dr. Sandberg.

At Kaiser Permanente, women with average breast cancer risk have the option of beginning annual mammograms anytime in their 40s. For women with above-average risk, recommended screening schedules vary. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks specific to your situation.

For women age 50 to 75 with average breast cancer risk, Kaiser Permanente recommends mammograms every 1 to 2 years. For women age 75 and up, mammograms are offered in the context of shared decision-making between a woman and her physician.

Are mammograms safe?

Each time you get a mammogram, you are briefly exposed to a very small amount of radiation, but the benefits of mammography outweigh any possible harm from the radiation exposure. In fact, the dose of radiation used for a screening mammogram of both breasts is roughly equal to the background radiation you’re exposed to just by living in the United States for 7 weeks.

What is Kaiser Permanente doing to ensure that I am safe from COVID-19 during my mammogram?

The health and safety of our members and patients is our highest priority. We follow appropriate COVID-19 safety protocols: Masks are required at all of our facilities, physical distancing measures are in place, and we have strict cleaning procedures to ensure appropriate disinfection of our facilities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

My mammogram report says that I have dense breasts. Does that increase my breast cancer risk?

All breasts contain glandular, connective, and fatty tissue. Dense breasts have higher amounts of glandular and connective tissue and lower amounts of fatty tissue. Only a mammogram can show if a woman has dense breasts — it can’t be felt in an exam.

Nearly half of all women 40 and older who get mammograms are found to have dense breasts. Dense breasts can make it harder for doctors to evaluate mammogram results and are associated with a slightly increased breast cancer risk.

If you have dense breasts, talk to your doctor about any recommended changes to your breast cancer screenings.

Does mammography work?

Yes. Multiple studies have shown a reduction in breast cancer deaths ranging from 20% to 40% with mammograms.

“Mammogram screening works,” said Dr. Sandberg. “What we're doing is saving lives.”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.

1 MILLION MAMMOGRAMS AND COUNTING! Getting a mammogram is the most effective way to detect breast cancer early, when the odds of survival are highest. Kaiser Permanente performs more than 1 million mammograms annually, putting our screening rates in the top 5% nationwide.  Kaiser Permanente average 84% National average 73%  Source: 2020 Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS®).