The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many to skip annual medical check-ups or put elective procedures on hold. This led to many women missing their regular breast cancer screening. It is generally a good idea for all women, even women of average risk, to resume their breast cancer screening with mammography as recommended by current guidelines for breast cancer screening.
According to the American Cancer Society, clinical breast exams or self-exams are generally inaccurate for early detection in average-risk women. Nevertheless, women should be familiar with their breasts and seek medical help if there is a change in their size, shape, or feel.
Protocols for women with an average risk of cancer
Each woman’s health, medical history and background will dictate how often to get checked and how to check. Women with average risk can generally follow these guidelines:
- Women age 40-44 have the option to get a mammogram annually
- Women age 45-54 should get a mammogram annually
- Women 55 and up can switch to mammograms every other year and continue as long as they are in good health.
Protocols for high-risk women
Women at high risk for breast cancer should consider more aggressive screening and have screening mammograms at an earlier age, with breast MRI often needed to assess dense breasts. Women at high risk include:
- Those with a family history of breast cancer
- Those who had cancer in one breast already
- Those with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations
- Those with abnormal ATM genes, which cause ataxia-telangiectasia
- Those with a mutated TP53 gene, a mutated CHEK2 gene, a mutated CDH1 gene, a mutated STK11 gene, or a mutated PALB2 gene
Certain tendencies or traits in women can also indicate an increased likelihood, such as starting menstrual periods before age 12 or going through menopause after age 55.
Mammograms are the best option for early detection
Regular mammograms can often detect breast cancer in the early stages. This can be years before physical symptoms develop, which is a benefit because early treatment means less invasive treatment than surgery or chemotherapy and a better chance of a full recovery. The sensitivity of mammograms to detect breast cancer is age-dependent because breast tissue becomes more fatty with increasing age which allows the cancer to be more easily seen.
Mammograms do have limitations and may miss some cancers, especially in younger women with more dense breasts. Inconclusive results may lead to further testing. There is also the recent development of 3D mammography, but it is not yet commonly available at all breast imaging centers. While studies about this new technology are ongoing, the initial benefits seem to include:
- It is more accurate than standard mammography in detecting cancer.
- It has fewer inconclusive results than standard mammography, which means fewer call-backs for testing that comes out negative.
- It works better on women with denser breasts. However, it does cost more than standard mammography and may not be covered by insurance.
Tools are available
Medical staff will assess your different risk factors and can advise you as to current breast cancer screening recommendations. The key is to be proactive about your preventive care and breast cancer screening. Communication with your doctor to discuss screening options, benefits and risks is important for your health. Breast cancer does not stop growing during pandemics, screening shouldn’t either.