Breast cancer

Updated 20 November 2017

Reasons to go for a mammogram

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it's the perfect time to go for a mammogram. Still not convinced? Read on to find out what awaits you if you don't.

Understandably most women cringe at the thought of having their breasts squashed between two plates, and for that very same reason they avoid having regular mammograms done.

But consider the consequences of shunning this necessary evil: when detected in the early stages of development, a cancerous lump in the breast can be removed with minor surgery (lumpectomy). However, given the chance to develop, the cancerous lump will grow and spread, possibly leading to the removal of the breast (mastectomy) and aggressive further therapy such as chemotherapy, anti-estrogen therapy and even death…

Now the thought of having your breast compressed for a couple of seconds once a year doesn’t seem so bad after all, does it?

Mammogram pain overrated

Mammograms have a bad reputation for being painful and are high on the list of dreaded doctor’s visits for women.

However, a study found that mammogram pain is overrated. “Pain is listed as one of the main barriers to women getting mammograms,” said researcher Penny Sharp at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. They interviewed 200 women immediately after they had mammograms, who compared the pain to a mild headache or wearing shoes that are a little too tight.

In fact, 94% of the women said they would get another mammogram the following year.

Mammograms shouldn’t be painful

“Mammograms do cause discomfort, but it shouldn’t be painful,” said Prof Justus Apffelstaedt from the University of Stellenbosch and head of a multidisciplinary breast health centre. He emphasized that a mammogram should be done at the right time (within a week after menstruation), by a radiographer specially trained and additionally certified in mammography, also called a mammographer.

“A woman going for screening mammography does not know whether she will walk out with a cancer diagnosis and therefore is very tense. An experienced mammographer understands this psychological process and knows how to put the women at ease ,” said Apffelstaedt. “When the patient is relaxed, the pectoral muscles behind the breast will relax, which should result in a painless mammogram.”

Tenderness or pain in the breast is rarely associated with breast cancer and women should avoid having a mammogram done if their breasts are particularly tender. “The reason for the pain should be addressed first, and once this has cleared up the patient can have a mammogram,” said Apffelstaedt.

Who should have a mammogram?

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), all women are at risk of getting breast cancer and 1 in every 26 South African women will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime.

However, some women are more prone to the disease than others:

  • Women who are 40 years or older.
  • Women who have a mother or sister who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Women who started their period at a young age.
  • Women who went through menopause at a late stage.
  • Women who had children after the age of 30, or not at all.
  • Women who drink more than two glasses of alcohol a day.

It is recommended that all women over the age of 40 undergo annual mammograms, and women of all ages should self-examine their breast at least once a month for lumps or other changes in the breast. Regardless of one’s age, irregularities should immediately be examined by a trained health professional.

Early detection crucial

There is still no convenient way to prevent breast cancer. Early detection by mammography, before the cancer can be felt by the woman or the doctor, in the majority of cases allows for less drastic treatment. It often saves your breast and your life.

Even if your breast self-examination is normal it is still necessary to have mammograms. “We can detect abnormalities before they become evident in a self-examination,” said Apffelstaedt.

In fact, once a cancerous lump has grown large enough to detect during a self-examination, it is already in an advanced stage of development.

Annual mammograms are therefore essential as they can pick-up abnormalities in the breast long before any obvious physical signs develop.

- (Wilma Stassen, Health24, updated October 2011)

Sources: CANSA; HealthScout News; National Cancer Registry


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Ask the Expert

Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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