Not your grandmother’s mammogram
Looking at the calendar, I realize it is past time for my annual mammogram. While it is easy to put off, statistically speaking, it is not smart to delay it any further.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women. Lung cancer continues to claim the top position.
In 2017, nearly 41,000 women will die from breast cancer and more than a quarter of million new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.
While fear of the unknown can be a deterrent, not knowing will not stop the cancer from growing. There is little question that when it comes to cancer, the earlier it is detected, the better. And breast cancer is no exception.
Confusion surrounding when to begin getting mammograms and how often is swirling due to changes in guidelines within the medical community. Until recently, 40 was the magic number for getting a baseline mammogram. New research and growing concerns that annual mammograms beginning at an early age may do more harm than good have prompted some organizations to change those guidelines.
In 2015, the American Cancer Society adjusted the recommendation to begin at age 45 and to reduce the frequency of mammograms to every other year after the age of 55.
According to the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force and the American College of Physicians recommend delaying screening in most women until age 50.
That being said, all agencies agree: mammograms are needed at almost any age if a lump is found. In addition, women with family history, dense breast tissue or other risk factors are encouraged to get a mammogram at age 40 or earlier.
This can be an issue in determining a need for early screening since approximately 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not show a family history. Additionally, without a baseline mammogram, there is no way for a woman to know if her breast tissue is dense or not.
Fortunately, most insurance companies still cover mammograms beginning at age 40 and a doctor’s order is not required.
The majority of policies will cover mammograms at no cost as part of preventative care and women without insurance can find several organizations who will help pay for the service.
While local health professionals do their best to encourage the practice of annual or biennial exams, when it comes to getting a mammogram in Nevada County, there are few options. Most women will find themselves at the Women’s Imaging Center at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital or Insight Imaging, both in Grass Valley.
Fortunately, both facilities offer state-of-the-art equipment and the latest digital technology which reduces exposure to radiation.
Years ago, stories of sore, even bruised breasts due to the machinery and fear of high levels of exposure to radiation gave pause to women who contemplated the procedure.
Today, advances in technology have made the procedure much more pleasant and minimized radiation exposure to less than that encountered taking a 30-minute air flight.
Places like Insight Imaging make the experience even more enjoyable, offering beverages and chocolate to guests in a comfortable setting. Insight Imaging is accredited by the American College of Radiology and is led by medical director Dr. Melissa Agness, a board-certified radiologist who takes pride in sitting down with patients after an exam and discussing the results, creating a unique opportunity to educate patients and decrease anxiety.
The most significant benefit of having the screening done at Insight Imaging is that results are looked at and discussed before you leave the appointment. Located on Litton Drive in Grass Valley, they also offer evening and weekend appointments, accept most insurances and offer cash discounts and financial assistance.
At Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s Woman’s Imaging Center, Registered Nurse and Nurse Navigator Linda Aeschliman said programs like Moonlight Mammograms are popular as they add a social component to the process, with evening appointments, wine, snacks and even a massage.
“Anything we can do to get women to say yes to mammograms, the better. Screenings are typically read within two hours, but with advance notice, a request can be made to have the results read immediately. This may be particularly welcome to anyone who has experienced abnormal results in the past,” said Aeschliman.
The typical mammogram takes less than 30 minutes.
Financial support is available through the Barbara Schmidt Millar Fund and the Every Woman Counts program, which can mean low or no cost to uninsured patients for not only the mammogram but in some case will fund subsequent biopsies, if required.
Removing barriers is key, so making certain financial limitations never hinder an annual mammogram has become of a focus among many of the facilities offering this important screening tool.
In South County, women can choose the Women’s Imaging Center at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital, which also offers digital mammography.
Digital mammography, which is said to take half the time to perform and provides results within seconds, also offers better visibility, especially through dense breast tissue and near the skin line and chest wall. Physicians are able to enhance the images and zoom in for a closer look — options not available through traditional mammography.
As for other methods of breast cancer detection, health professionals continue to recommend monthly breast self-exams, stating that what is important is that women are familiar enough with their breasts to notice a change.
The reality is the earlier breast cancer is detected the more options the patient will have for treatment.
The best way to do that is with annual mammograms.
If you want to find breast cancer early, make the screening a non-negotiable part of your annual health care.
Hollie Grimaldi-Flores is a frequent contributor to The Union.
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