Issue 7 Stories
Womens Health

Annual Screening Mammography:

The Best Defense Against Breast Cancer

Early detection of any type of cancer is essential for successful treatment and cure, and that’s why healthcare providers emphasize the importance of regular screening mammograms. Early detection of breast cancer is the surest way of reducing a person’s risk of dying from the disease.

Who Needs a Mammogram?

In recent years, various organizations have released conflicting mammography recommendations, which can be confusing for patients, according to Collier B. Gladin, MD, a radiologist at Sentara RMH. However, the Sentara Cancer Network, the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging all recommend an annual screening mammogram for every woman age 40 and older.

“Annual screening breast MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is also recommended for patients with an elevated risk for breast cancer,” says Dr. Gladin. “Women under age 40 with a family history of breast cancer likely also need regular screenings and should talk to their doctor about specific requirements to determine the timing and frequency of the tests.”

Mammograms beginning at age 40 are considered “the gold standard for early detection of breast cancer, and they offer the greatest opportunity for life-saving interventions,” adds C. Scott Pease, MD, a radiologist at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

3-D Mammography

One of the most significant advances in breast cancer screening in recent years has been 3-D mammography, also known as tomosynthesis, which is offered at both Sentara RMH and Sentara Martha Jefferson. Using low-dose radiation, tomosynthesis involves taking images of the breast from multiple angles. Those pictures are then compiled by a computer into clear, three-dimensional images of the breast, explains Dr. Gladin. Usually performed in combination with a traditional 2-D mammogram, 3-D mammograms help radiologists find cancers earlier and more easily.

Tomosynthesis has been shown to reduce the number of follow-up appointments and biopsies that may be required to clarify ambiguous findings on 2-D images—an advantage that helps relieve much of the anxiety many women feel while waiting for follow-up appointments and the results of those additional studies. Women with dense breast tissue especially benefit from 3-D mammograms, since detecting tumors in those patients can be difficult with 2-D mammography alone.

A Different Approach to 3-D Mammography

Taking advantage of recent advances in technology, Sentara Martha Jefferson now also uses a 3-D mammogram screening exam called C-View. This screening, says Dr. Pease, uses the 3-D data from tomosynthesis to create a computer-generated 2-D view of the breast, eliminating the need for a separate 2-D screening. Patients don’t need to request this test, since it’s now part of the default 3-D screening option at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

What’s the Radiation Risk of a Mammogram?

The screening techniques used at Sentara Martha Jefferson and Sentara RMH deliver radiation doses well below the maximum limits set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The benefits of mammograms have been shown to be worth any theoretical risk from radiation,” says Dr. Gladin. “These radiation guidelines are heavily monitored and regulated by the government, with strict dose and quality-control limits.”

The radiation dose from one mammogram is slightly more than what you would receive from a chest X-ray, Dr. Gladin notes.

“Radiation risk is likely very small, if present at all, for adult women of screening age,” adds Dr. Pease. “Millions of mammograms have been performed, and no direct harm has been observed. By contrast, the benefit of mammography has been well observed—in fact, breast cancer deaths may be as much as 48 percent fewer among women who have screening mammograms.”

Insurance Coverage

As part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), 2-D screening mammograms are covered by all ACA-compliant health insurance plans, without any copays or deductibles. However, 3-D mammograms may require additional costs, so women should check with their insurance provider and with Sentara ahead of time. Not all providers cover 3-D mammograms.

Dedicated Breast Care Team

At both Sentara RMH and Sentara Martha Jefferson, dedicated onsite radiologists, who are experts in diagnosing breast cancer, read and interpret patients’ mammograms.

Patients also can rest assured that both hospitals offer the latest cancer treatment options, innovative clinical trials, and a patient navigator to help patients understand and manage the details of an individualized treatment plan. In addition, patients’ results and treatment plans are available in Sentara’s electronic medical record, so every doctor on the team can easily access their health information.

Peace of Mind

While mammograms can be uncomfortable for some women, the health benefits far outweigh any temporary discomfort.

Sentara’s mammography technologists strive to make the process as brief and easy for their patients as possible, while ensuring they get effective images for the radiologists to analyze. For some women, taking an over-the-counter pain medication about an hour before the test can help.

“Although many women may feel anxious about having a mammogram, few of them regret undergoing the test after it’s done,” says Dr. Pease.

High-Risk Breast Program at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital

When women get a screening mammogram at Sentara Martha Jefferson, an assessment determines if they may be at increased risk for breast cancer. Patients who are identified are asked to contact a nurse for a more in-depth analysis of their individual risk.

For women who are at high risk, the hospital offers a new High-Risk Breast Program, which includes physicians, a nurse practitioner, a genetic counselor, a registered dietitian, an exercise physiologist and ongoing follow-up care. Some of these services are offered for free, thanks to philanthropic gifts.

Breast cancer risk factors include:

•     A first- or second-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter, aunt or first cousin) with diagnosed breast cancer

•     Having your first child after age 30, or never giving birth

•     A previous breast biopsy that showed abnormal cells

•     Using hormone replacement therapy after menopause

•     Dense breasts

•     First period before age 12

•     Lifestyle factors, such as being overweight or drinking alcohol

If you think you may be at risk for breast cancer, call Sentara Martha Jefferson at 434-654-4483 to speak to a nurse.

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