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What do you need to know about mammograms?

Dr. Emily Senay

After years of being told that early detection was the key to treating breast cancer, many were understandably stunned last year when a panel of scientists concluded that women over 40 don’t need mammograms nearly as often as previously thought. And a new study out of Sweden raises even more questions about how often mammograms are needed.

This week’s show should help to answer some of the questions surrounding this controversy, but many of our readers may want to know more. Our medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay will be taking your questions on mammograms. Submit your questions below, and she will respond to many of them on Wednesday, October 6.

Update: A note from Laura LeBlanc, Need to Know’s health producer

Clearly our readers have lots of questions about mammograms. Some of you want to know if there’s a better way to screen for breast cancer, and many of you would love to have a less painful alternative (me too!). Others wonder if cancers caught early through routine mammograms are easier and more cost effective to treat. Dr. Senay addresses some of these questions in Five Things You Need to Know About Mammograms on tonight’s broadcast.

Some of you also have personal questions about your own unique medical situation. No one can diagnose you or make specific recommendations for mammogram screening for you online. Specific concerns like these are best discussed with your physician who knows your unique medical history. But Dr. Senay will address some of the broader questions you have regarding mammograms next week.

Many of you are worried that the radiation from a mammogram might be dangerous. I can tell you that according to the American Cancer Society, today’s mammography machines use a low dose of radiation – about the same amount of background radiation you are exposed to about every three months just from the world around you. The American Cancer Society says the radiation you would get from routine mammograms, even if you were to have them yearly from age 40 to age 90, would not significantly increase your risk of breast cancer. You can get more information about mammograms and other breast imaging procedures on their website.

Update (Oct. 6): Dr. Senay returned with answers to some of your questions — read them here.



  • Jennifer

    I want to know more about thermography. Can I replace my mammogram with it? Is it useful to utilize both?

  • Jonna

    I am a cancer survivor (2008) and my doctor had me scheduled for mammogram follow ups every 6 months for two years. My concern is what the risk of having this frequent of mammograms? Why isn’t the medical field using other ways for detection such as thermography?

  • Anonymous

    I keep hearing the difference of opinions of if we need mammograms. Are they safe? Is the radiation worth the danger to predict the cancer? But my question to you, is that my mom who has small tiny microscopic pre-cancers, would have never found them without mammograms. So I find it hard to believe the mammograms are not needed. Who do we know to believe in this argument?

  • Diane

    I have a question about how high risk is defined and when we should do annual mammograms. My mother and sister both are breast cancer survivors, and we have breast cancer in earlier generations. However, I was tested and am BRCA negative. My mother was on HRT for years, so I think her cancer was related to that… but if there are multiple incidences of cancer in a family do you then recommend annual mammograms or does the risk from exposure to xray make it less advisable? (I’m 46 and have had annual mammograms since I was 40, plus one earlier due to a lump that was benign)

  • Michelle

    I’m 39 and have saline implants. My only mammogram was just before the implant surgery. After having experienced a mammogram first-hand, I feel quite confident in saying that there is no physical way I could have a mammogram now. What are my options for cancer screening?

  • Peggy

    What about thermal technology for detecting breast cancer? Is it a better idea than mammograms? If so, why isn’t it more available?

  • Pam

    I heard that there’s an alternative that is safer that uses ultrasound technology. Is this true? Someone called it a “digital mammogram.”

  • Kewpiedoll99

    I’d like to know how a sonogram compares to a mammogram in terms of detection, in sensitivity & specificity. A couple times in the past when I’ve had a mammogram and they thought they saw something, they did a sonogram to confirm it. I feel like, a sono is SO MUCH more comfortable than a mammogram, so why don’t they just have women get sonograms routinely and skip the mammograms altogether?

    Also, how much danger is there of damage to breast tissue from the compression? Long ago I heard a scary story about somebody’s boob getting squashed horribly and as a consequence I’ve always been terrified that will happen to me. Getting a mammogram is a very frightening experience, and generally the technician is of no help whatsoever in alleviating the fear.

  • Deb

    Logically it would seem if youv’e had regular mammograms and have had no lumps and no close family history of breast cancer that you could stop having them at maybe 55 or 60. I am 70 and had my last at 67. Would certainly be glad to give them up. Found the “smashing” aspect very painful since I am a DDD cup.

  • Christine

    I am 40 and just had my first routine mammogram this summer. A follow-up was recommended, and they found a cluster of micro-calcifications. These weren’t detected either my self-exams or by the exam at my yearly checkup. The next step is that I have to have a biopsy. I am told that at this point I shouldn’t get too worried, as micro-calcifications are only a precursor to cancer about 10% of the time… BUT, if it could possibly be cancer and it couldn’t be detected w/o the mammogram, then why are they now saying mammograms aren’t needed as early or as often? Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to find out if there is this risk for developing cancer, so that it can be monitored and treated at an earlier stage, than to wait until cancer has progressed to the point that a detectable lump/tumor has developed and the cancer might be more difficult to treat?

  • Vanessa

    Please explain how the radiation that is used in mammogram technology can actually contribute to cancer in cases, and while mammograms are helpful at early detection, sonograms and ultrasound and thermography are often used to back up mammogram identification with less risk.

  • Karen

    The Scandinavian countries have the highest risk of breast cancer in the world. Because this study comes out of Sweden, do they know something we don’t or something more re: having mammograms less often? Also (straying a bit from the mammogram subject), are the risk factors of breast cancer really legitimate? The people I know who have had breast cancer have no family history, don’t drink that much, exercise moderately, and aren’t overweight.

  • Rid1541

    They still compress the boobs, the picture is digital, with better views.

  • Tomma

    Are there any alternative types of screening methods, like ultrasound, that can be used? and if so why aren’t we using them?

  • Ga Anita

    Would you please comment on mammograms resulting in the rupture of breast implants! Thank you.

  • Wary1

    We know that radiation causes cancer. It seems stupid to use mammography as a primary screening method. Like others who posted questions, I want to know how good the alternatives (like thermography) are. And I want to know whether health care professionals who aren’t specialists are even aware of these option. Are they stuck on mammograms because the technology is vastly superior, because insurance covers them, because they turn a bigger profit than the options, or because (maybe) they also are unaware of effective alternatives?

  • Deb

    My 1st mammogram detected calcifications- biopsy found no problem but recommended mammogram every 6 months for two years to establish baseline. Last visit was very rough- technician smelled of cigarette smoke and handled me very roughly. She had to retake the photos so I had double exposure to radiation. I do not want to go through it again. Please let us know if there is a viable alternative. I asked about ultrasound and my doctor said it is not good enough.

  • Cynthia

    Mammograms not only irradiate and compress delicate breast tissue, but irresponsible lab techs have been caught stamping NEG on samples they haven’t even looked at. Lumpy breast tissue is loaded with suspects, few of which grow. Remember all the studies that related cervical cancer with uncircumcised partners. Ooopps. Goofed that one. Sorry guys, you just gave up 15 square inches of nerve endings on the foreskin which would have saved you from buying a lot of blue pills in mid-life. No PAP smears, no mammograms for me.

  • Jocelyn

    What about PET scans for cancer detection in breasts as opposed to mammography? Is it just that mammograms have more acceptance in the medical community than PET scans do?

  • marie

    I don’t understand why ultrasound or other scans aren’t utilized at least for the baseline for those who do require early mammograms (due to family history or previous lumps, etc).
    I started as early as 35 with annual mammograms after that. Since I was pregnant when due for my annual mammogram last year, we opted for an ultrasound which immediately detected irregularities. When technicians reviewed my previous years film, they could see nothing due to dense tissue characteristic in younger women. So the 6 or more years worth of mammograms I had to that point were totally useless.
    equally disturbing is that only once was I ever offered an apron to protect against radiation regarding reproduction

  • Michelle

    I forgot to say that the surgery was 16 years ago.

  • Michelle

    I forgot to say that the surgery was 16 years ago.

  • Teresa Hackler

    I am 49 and have had regular mammograms for at least 9 years. I have no family history of breast cancer and have never had a problem with my mammograms. Yesterday’s mammogram was incredibly painful. The technician compressed my breasts more than I have ever experienced. I want to know how often I really need to have these with my history. I fully advocate yearly mammograms where indicated, but worry abut creating problems through the radiation and compressing my breasts. Is it really necessary to compress so much as to cause pain? My other mammograms weren’t this bad and yet were able to be read!

  • Elizabethms

    Can mammogram related compression rupture tumors and spread cancer?

  • Tealoverdenise

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago, had lumpectomy, radiation and then reconstruction that went very badly wrong (necrosis). Because of the tissue damage, a mammogram is never “readable” and they always suggest an ultrasound and, sometimes, an MRI. This is ridiculous – I can’t afford it. What am I to do?

  • Lilacs7

    Would you please address the breast density issue. I am 42 and last mammo showed 75% density. How can the mammogram be read accurately with that much density, isn’t it useless? Isn’t breast ultrasound recommended instead for patients with very dense tissue?