Mammograms matter

As an oncologist at Woodhull Medical Center I’m often asked about the risk of getting breast cancer and whether getting a mammogram is truly necessary.

Having seen first-hand the benefits of early breast cancer detection, I’ve counseled hundreds of women in Brooklyn about the benefits of regular mammograms – our best option for finding cancer at the critical early stage. Here are some practical answers to why mammograms matter.

What’s the big deal with breast cancer?

Breast cancer results when cells in the breast begin growing abnormally and form a malignant tumor. According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, causing nearly 40,000 deaths.

However, when breast cancer is detected early enough, survival rates are significantly higher than when detected later. There have been great strides in prevention and treatment of breast cancer but for some people, like African-American women, death rates remain higher than for others.

Nearly five black women die needlessly per day from breast cancer in the United States — a total of 1,722 deaths annually — according to a study released March, 2012 that was conducted by Sinai Urban Health Institute.

How can I find out if I’m at risk?

There are many risk factors, including environmental and hereditary conditions which you should discuss with your doctor. HHC recommends that women begin breast cancer screening by having a mammogram starting at age 40, and continue those screenings every one to two years until age 74, in accordance with the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Guidelines.

What are the signs of breast cancer?

Breast cancer, particularly in the earliest stages, may have few or no symptoms at all. Even when a woman finds a lump in the breast, it still needs further medical evaluation to determine if the lump is cancer. The best way to detect breast cancer is by having a mammogram. The mammogram can detect abnormalities before they become large enough to be noticed through self-examination.

What’s a mammogram?

A mammogram is a special type of x-ray of the breast that helps doctors screen for a number of abnormalities in the tissue that may be an indication of the presence of cancer.

Why is there so much confusion about mammograms?

Mammograms have been the single most effective tool in detecting breast cancer early enough to make a difference. Reports in the media, however, have sometimes focused on conflicting information about when and how often women should be screened.

HHC’s policy is based on clear evidence that women who get mammograms beginning at age 40 and continue to have screenings every one to two years are most likely to benefit.

Does it hurt to have a mammogram?

Mammograms involve gently pressing the breast between two plates in order to get the best possible x-ray of the breast tissue. Most women report some discomfort during a mammogram.

As with any diagnostic test, speak to your doctor and the technician about any questions you may have and let them know if you are concerned about pain. Having a mammogram is very important and we want you be as comfortable as possible when having your mammogram.

What is Woodhull Medical Center doing about breast cancer?

We actively promote mammograms to all our female patients and employees, starting at age 40 to detect early breast abnormalities that may potentially develop into breast cancer. Prevention is a highly effective strategy to deal with cancer.

In addition, our Cancer Care team, composed of surgical, medical and radiation oncologists, all work together to provide the best treatment plan for our breast cancer patients.

In 2011, Woodhull performed almost 8,100 mammograms; an increase of 25 percent over the past five years. We are committed to making this life-saving screening test available to all patients regardless of their health insurance status.

How can I get screened?

Mammograms are available at Woodhull and all HHC public hospitals at minimal cost. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford medical care, you may qualify for HHC Options. Visit our website

A final note: During the month of May, HHC has been asking women throughout New York to dedicate their mammograms to someone special in their lives. By sharing this dedication on Twitter and Facebook, they can spread the word about this important message and inspire friends, colleagues, neighbors and loved ones to get a mammogram. Visit our website for details on how you can help.

Monique Hartley-Brown, M.D. M.S. is acting chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology,Woodhull Medical Center.

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