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lisa fournace winn, dnp, aprn

The top 3 fears surrounding mammograms. Let’s talk about them.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month always comes with a lot of fear and trepidation. A mammogram is one of your best lines of defense for early detection, but unfortunately around 30% of women over the age of 40 still don’t get one! Why are so many women putting themselves at greater risk? They’re afraid. I am here to break down your top fears, provide you with the truth behind them, and give you some encouragement along the way. 

Fear: “I’ve heard mammograms are painful.”

Thanks to modern technology, the majority of women only feel pressure during a mammogram, not pain. Examiners are now able to even capture 3-D images with a less squishing from 3-D mammography or tomosynthesis. Remember, a few moments of being uncomfortable can make the difference between early detection and late stage cancer. 

Fear: “I don’t want to expose myself to radiation.”

A common fact that most people don’t know is radiation occurs naturally in our environment, and we are exposed to it everyday. Aptly named “background radiation”, it makes up over half of the radiation exposure we receive annually. Although the amounts vary by location, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) estimated people in the US are exposed to around 6.2 mSv per year, which still falls well below the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory limits and recommendations. If you are interested in how much radiation you are exposed to yearly, check out their website to calculate your radiation dose

While mammogram machines expose you to radiation, the amount is extremely small and within federal regulatory limits. For perspective, a standard mammogram machine uses around 0.4mSv of radiation, with the 3-D models using even less. Unless you are receiving scans consistently, multiple times a week, your exposure to radiation levels are less than:

  • cosmic radiation from living in a high elevation area or frequently flying (0.8mSv),
  • annual radon exposure in your home (2.28mSv)
  • getting a CT scan (7mSv for a chest; 12mSv for full body)

*mSv (millisievert) – the measurement of a dose of radiation absorbed by the body (also called rem, roentgen equivalent man) 

Fear: “I’m afraid they will find something.”

The fear of results is typical and real. But let me calm you with some important data. The early detection 5-year survival rate for breast cancer is around 99%. This means getting regular mammograms as well as performing regular self breast exams can save your life. 

Fear: “I don’t want to waste my time and money. I’m healthy and I haven’t found a lump.”

If you have been performing self breast exams and haven’t found a lump, that is great news! However, some lumps start off smaller than you can feel. Breast cancer can go asymptomatic for up to 2 years. Mammograms are a vital early detection tool and can help minimize effects of cancer. Waiting to get a mammogram until you’ve found a lump or have symptoms may be too late.

Overcoming Pre-Mammogram Fears

Getting a mammogram doesn’t have to be scary. It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or even anxious. First, know that you are not alone and no matter the outcome, there are great programs and resources available for support. Reward yourself for taking the step to better health with self-care or a small treat. Come up with positive statements that can help alleviate the stress of your mammogram such as “I’ve got this,” or “This is part of my optimal health journey”. Talk with friends or family members and schedule your mammogram appointments together. This will help you hold each other accountable and give you a partner who understands the emotions that come with screening.

If finances are an issue, there are low cost and no cost programs you may qualify for in Tennessee. 

Breast Cancer Facts

We discussed fears surrounding mammograms and how to overcome them. Breast cancer conversations are often full of myths and misconceptions, but here are some hard truths about breast cancer. 

  • Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than any woman in any other race or ethnicity. 
  • Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths for Black and Hispanic women in the US, and the 2nd leading cause of cancer-related deaths for Asian & Pacific Islander, American Indian, Alaska Native, and white women in the US.
  • 1 in 8 women are going to develop invasive breast cancer in their life; with an estimated 280,000 new cases this year. 
  • About 30% of women with newly diagnosed cancers are breast cancer
  • Breast cancer is most often caused by factors outside of your control
  • Self breast exams and physical breast examinations by your health provider are just as important as mammograms. 
  • A lump does not always indicate breast cancer, but you could still have breast cancer with no lump or symptoms

Completing a breast self-exam every month, 3-5 days after your period starts (for those who are going/have been through menopause, complete on the same day each month) and having annual mammograms are the best way to protect yourself against breast cancer.

Getting a mammogram doesn’t have to be scary or painful and it is essential in early detection. Schedule your appointment with a screening location near you.

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