Your Health

Do you need a mammogram?

Simple test can detect breast cancer before symptoms appear

Simple test can detect breast cancer before symptoms appear
Read more

How to get a mammogram

Debunking mammogram myths

What's stopping you?

Further reading

Read more breast cancer stories

BY ANDREA BODIE
Winnipeg Health Region
Published Wednesday October 5, 2011

Mammograms are so efficient at detecting breast cancer they can often identify the first signs of a tumour up to three years before symptoms - such as a lump on the breast - first appear.

That's why health experts such as Brandy Pantel, at Health Educator at BreastCheck Manitoba, are encouraging women 50 years of age or older to get a mammogram at least once every two years.

"If we catch breast cancer in an earlier stage, you've got a greater chance to live," says Pantel.

The numbers tell the story. Breast cancer survival rates have risen dramatically over the last 20 years, largely because of early screening programs. In fact, a mammogram will detect eight out of every 10 breast cancers in women who attend regularly for screening.

Still, some women may not understand how effective a mammogram can be. For example, some women may think it is only necessary to go for one if symptoms appear. Others may believe they will be able to pick up on signs of trouble sooner than a mammogram because they are ‘in tune" with their bodies.

But Pantel says tumours are often getting started a long time before symptoms appear.

"When breast cancer is in its early stages, you don't have signs or symptoms. You can't feel it. A mammogram is able to find it before changes happen in your body that you can feel," she says.

How effective are mammograms?

In Manitoba, women between 50 and 69 years of age who were screened by BreastCheck were 23 per cent less likely to die from breast cancer.  

But a mammogram does more then detect tumours. It also provides peace of mind. Going for regular mammograms ensures that if you do have a breast health concern, it is addressed sooner rather than later. But not everyone has a problem. Only about five or six women out of 100 need more tests after their screening mammogram.

It couldn't be easier

You can be proactive about your health by making a phone call to schedule your mammogram. If you're a woman age 50 or over, this bi-yearly ritual needs to be part of your health regimen.

You don't need a referral from a health care provider. You can call 788-8000 or 1-800-903-9290 to set up your appointment today.

After your mammogram, you and your health provider will receive your results within two weeks. You'll also receive a reminder letter when it's time for you to schedule your next appointment.

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer you may need to start screening sooner. Because the issue of risk is assessed based on your unique circumstances, your doctor will coordinate your mammogram if you need to start sooner.

Have breast health on your radar

It's a fact that can't be ignored: 80 per cent of breast cancer happens in women over the age of 50.

Being a woman and getting older are risk factors beyond your control. What remains in your control is knowing the signs of symptoms of breast cancer, having regular mammograms, being breast aware and managing your health.

"In presentations to community groups I encourage women to know how their breasts normally look and feel. Some women are uncomfortable with this but the point is made: there are plenty of chances throughout our day to take notice of our bodies - while you are showering, when you are putting on body lotion, as you get dressed,," says Pantel. "You can only recognize there's something abnormal with your breasts if you know what's normal."

"If your breast looks or feels different than it normally does, get it checked out. If you feel a lump, get it checked.  It can feel awkward to talk about or frightening for some to address, but information is powerful and can be empowering. We offer many resources to help support women and men manage their breast health" says Tania Sloan, Director of the Breast Health Centre.

The good news is that exercising, eating well, maintaining a healthy body weight and limiting alcohol are all things we can do to reduce our risk of breast cancer.

Lifestyle choices that you can make to reduce your risk for breast cancer can have a significant impact. Moreover, these lifestyle choices can positively impact your overall health and wellbeing. In choosing to improve your health, you're also decreasing your risk of other cancers, diabetes, heart attack and stroke.

"We all know people who did everything ‘right" and still got cancer. Being a woman and getting older are the two biggest risk factors for breast cancer," says Pantel. "If you're going to get breast cancer, we want to find it early. Simply put, women need to make taking care of themselves a priority - this includes having routine mammograms starting at age 50."

How to get a mammogram

It is recommended that women over the age of 50 who do not have breast implants, breast cancer or breast symptoms (such as unusual lumps or bloody nipple discharge) have regular mammograms at BreastCheck. The others still need mammograms but access a diagnostic centre through health provider referral.

You do not need your doctor's referral to schedule a mammogram. If you're 50 or older, you can call 788-8000 or 1-800-903-9290 to set up an appointment with BreastCheck CancerCare Manitoba.

It is recommended you wear a two piece outfit to your appointment. That way you can easily remove your clothing from the waist up and change into a gown.

On the day of your appointment, do not wear deodorant, talcum powder or lotion under your arms or near your breasts. They can show up on the x-ray.

Your breast will be pressed between two plastic plates. That helps technologists get a better picture. Your breasts are not harmed in the few seconds it takes for each x-ray.

If your breasts are tender, you may want to take a mild pain reliever an hour before your appointment.

Within two weeks of your appointment you and your doctor will get a letter with your results. In the event you require further testing or follow up, you may be referred to the Breast Health Centre.

Debunking mammogram myths

If you've heard horror stories about women going for painful mammograms, realize that everyone's experience is unique. Just like your period - which can change from cycle to cycle - or childbirth, no two women have the exact same experience when it comes to having a mammogram. In fact, no one woman has the same experience every time.

"It's important for women to understand when a mammogram is painful for you, that's the way you felt it. However, it might not be painful for your friend. We all feel this differently," says Pantel. "Our breasts change over time. Many women find that it gets easier. If your mammogram was difficult this time, give it another try in two years. It may have gotten easier but more importantly your risk has increased."

What's stopping you?

A survey by Statistics Canada indicated that in 2008, 28 per cent of Canadian women aged 50 to 69 had not had a mammogram in the past two years. 

The most common reasons for not having a mammogram were thinking it wasn't necessary (37 per cent) and not getting around to it (33 per cent).

To address these reasons, there are some things you need to know about getting your mammogram with BreastCheck:

  • It is important.
  • The entire appointment takes less than half an hour - and we usually run on time.
  • Saturday appointments are available.
  • You don't need a doctor's referral - you can call directly to schedule your appointment
  • All technologists performing the tests are women.
  • The test is done in complete privacy.
  • If you're worried or anxious, tell the technologist. She'll help you through it.
  • If English is your second language, resources are available in 19 languages.
  • Mobile screening clinics are available at 90 locations throughout the province. In fact, mobile screening clinics will be in the north end of Winnipeg (at the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, Norquay Community Centre, North End Wellness Centre or Fred Douglas Lodge) from October 17th until the end of November. Call 788-8000 or 1-800-903-9290 for an appointment. If you need a ride, please mention this when you call.

Breast cancer has a far-reaching impact on a woman, her family and her support system. Encourage and support the women in your life to participate in regular screening.

Further reading

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