Mammography myths

My older sister Debbie is in the fight of her life. At age 57 she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. The official diagnosis is invasive ductal carcinoma. Debbie’s large tumor never showed up on mammograms even though she was screened multiple times in less than a year. Many people think mammography is 100 percent accurate in detecting cancer. That’s a common “mammography myth.”

Screening mammograms can successfully detect cancer most of the time; however, mammography alone may miss upwards of 15 percent of cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute it can be as high as 20 percent. Most of those occur in dense breast tissue. And Debbie, unfortunately, is one of those whose breast cancer did not show up clearly on a mammogram for that reason. Some radiologists say looking for tumors in dense breast tissue is like "looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm."

Another common mammography myth is that you don’t need a mammogram until you’re age 40. The American Cancer Society recommends the average woman begin having annual mammograms at age 40 unless she has a family history of breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen website says if there is a strong family history of breast cancer you may want to have a mammogram 5 to 10 years before the age of the youngest relative who was diagnosed.

There are other mammography myths that wrongly convince women to ignore or put off getting a mammogram. Lori Halton, M.D., breast radiologist with Norton Cancer Institute, says “mammography is not perfect, but misinformation should not keep people from getting screened.”

Dr. Halton says mammograms are one of the best diagnostic tools available and work well for most women. For those who have dense breast tissue, however, she recommends they go to a center that offers digital mammography, which makes it easier to distinguish dense breast tissue from cancerous tumors.

If women have dense breast tissue and a family history of breast cancer, there are additional cancer screening options. Ask your doctor whether you have dense breast tissue and if you should consider additional screening. Dr. Halton says every woman should know her breasts, her risk factors and what kind of screening tools are available.

To sign up for Dr. Halton’s free “The Myth of the Normal Mammogram” class on Thursday, July 18, 6 to 7 p.m. at Norton Health & Wellness Center, call (502) 636-8308.