57% of Albertan women aged 50-69 had a screening mammogram during 2013-2014.

About breast cancer screening

A bit about breast cancer screening.

Breast cancer screening is the best way to find breast cancer early. And it can truly save your life. That’s because abnormalities or cancer can develop long before you notice any symptoms. Screening mammograms can detect these abnormalities early, when treatment has the best chance of working.

If you’re a woman between 50 and 74, it’s important to get mammograms regularly. The risk of breast cancer increases as women get older. In fact, more than 3 out of 4 women diagnosed with breast cancer in Alberta are 50 years or older. Once you’re over 74, you may continue to benefit from regular screening mammograms.  It’s best to talk with your healthcare provider about whether this is the best option for you.

If you’re between 40 and 49, it’s less clear that the benefits of mammograms outweigh the risks. Research has shown that screening women at this age isn’t as effective. However, since the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age and other personal risk factors, it’s a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider about your own breast cancer risk and whether you need mammograms.

If you’re younger than 40, the risk of breast cancer is much lower.  Generally, there is no benefit in having screening mammograms at this age.  If you’re concerned about having an increased risk of breast cancer, talk to your healthcare provider.

No matter how old you are, know what looks and feels normal for you so you can notice any unusual changes in your breasts. Talk to your healthcare provider if you notice anything different.

 

Screening tests and knowing what’s normal

 

There are three methods commonly used to check for changes in your breasts that may indicate a problem.

  • Mammograms – These are x-rays of your breasts that are done at specific radiology clinics and some hospitals to check for abnormal changes. Screening mammograms are recommended for all women between 50 and 74. Women 40 to 49 and women 75 years and older should talk to their healthcare provider about their need for screening mammograms.
  • Clinical breast exam – Talk to your healthcare provider about having your breasts examined as part of your regular health check-up. This is not a substitute for your regular mammogram.  Your healthcare provider may check for lumps, dimpling of the skin or nipple discharge, as well as any possible changes in your lymph nodes.
  • Knowing what’s normal – This is what you can do on your own to check for changes in your breasts. After all, no one knows your own body as well as you do, so see your healthcare provider right away if you notice:
    • A lump in your breast or armpit
    • A nipple that is turned inward, if it isn’t usually
    • Crusting, bleeding or a rash on your nipple
    • Nipple discharge
    • Dimpling or thickening of the skin in one area of your breast

Good breast health will give you the best chance of finding breast cancer early, when treatment may be most successful.

Your breast screening life plan

As a woman, it’s never too early to know your breasts and what looks and feels normal for you. Here’s a guide to help you know what screening steps to take throughout your lifetime:

Women 20 to 39

  • Know what looks and feels normal for you and see your healthcare provider right away if you notice any unusual changes.
  • Plan on seeing your healthcare provider regularly for a health check-up and mention any changes or anything that doesn’t seem right.

Women 40 to 49

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk of breast cancer, as well as the risks and benefits of screening mammograms.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about having your breasts examined as part of your regular health check-up.
  • Know what looks and feels normal for you and see your healthcare provider right away if you notice any unusual changes.

Women 50 to 74

  • Be sure to get a screening mammogram every two years or as decided by you and your healthcare provider.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about having your breasts examined as part of your regular health check-up.
  • Know what looks and feels normal for you and see your healthcare provider right away if you notice any unusual changes.

Women 75+

  • You may continue to benefit from regular screening mammograms.  Talk to your healthcare provider about whether this is the best option for you.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about having your breasts examined as part of your regular health check-up.
  • Know what looks and feels normal for you and see your healthcare provider right away if you notice any unusual changes.

Note: If you have breast implants, it’s still important to have mammograms regularly.  When booking an appointment for your mammogram, remember to let the clinic know that you have breast implants.

As well, if you’ve been experiencing any unusual symptoms that could point to breast cancer, or you’ve had breast cancer in the past, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what tests are right for you.

Learn more about mammograms.

Your mammogram came back abnormal. Now what?

It’s perfectly normal to be worried and a little scared if your screening mammogram results come back abnormal. What you need to know is that most abnormal screening mammogram results are not breast cancer – only about 7% of women need to have further tests, and only a small percentage of these women are diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, 9 out of 10 women who go for extra tests do not have breast cancer. And if you do have it, finding breast cancer early means treatment will likely work better.

All that said, if you get an abnormal mammogram result it’s very important to go for follow-up tests and to try and keep a positive attitude. Deaths from breast cancer have gone down significantly in Alberta since 1990 because of an increase in screening mammograms and improvements in treatment.

What causes abnormal mammogram results?

While there’s a chance an abnormal result may be cancer, most of the time it’s not cancer and you’re not in danger. Abnormal results could mean:

  • Fluid-filled sacs (cysts). Up to 60% of women will have these at some point in their lives.
  • Small solid nodules called fibroadenomas that are not cancer.
  • Small calcium deposits which are known as benign calcifications.

What happens after abnormal mammogram results?

The most important thing to do following abnormal results is to go for follow-up tests. Your healthcare provider will have a copy of your results and may have called you already to make an appointment if it wasn’t already arranged by the radiology clinic. If you haven’t heard from your healthcare provider yet, you’ll want to call to make an appointment to discuss follow-up tests.

If you’re told you should have further testing, the kinds of tests depend on the type of abnormal changes found, and may include:

  • Clinical breast examination – this is a thorough physical examination of your breasts and nearby lymph nodes that’s done by your healthcare provider. It’s a check for lumps, obvious differences between your breasts, skin thickening and nipple discharge.
  • Diagnostic mammogram – this is a special x-ray that looks a little more closely at the abnormality and provides more images for the radiologist.
  • Ultrasound – for this test, sound waves are used to create an image of your breast and can show whether a lump is fluid-filled or solid.
  • Biopsy – this is a procedure that involves removing a small sample of tissue from the abnormal area for further study in a lab.

Where to get the help you need

If you’re not sure what to do next after hearing that you have an abnormal result:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your results and any questions you may have.
  • Call us at 1-866-727-3926 for general information about the Alberta Breast Cancer Screening Program.
  • Call a friend. An abnormal result does not mean you have cancer, but it can be stressful.
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