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AHN doctor: Mammograms the ‘gold standard’ of breast screening

In this Thursday, May 6, 2010 file photo, a radiologist uses a magnifying glass to check mammograms for breast cancer in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

While breast cancer can be life-altering, dangerous, and deadly, routine mammogram screenings can help catch cancer early and detect issues before symptoms emerge.

Allegheny Health Network breast surgery director Dr. Suzanne Coopey emphasized that breast imaging is essential to keep an eye on potential problems that could be cancerous.

“Women have the option to start screening mammograms at the age of 40, and the option to do them annually,” Coopey said. “We know that screening mammograms regularly, like every year, has a potential to reduce the mortality for breast cancer, so we tend to catch things much earlier if people are doing regular screenings.”

A mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast with the breast in compression, can find small masses, calcified areas, or areas of distortion, Coopey said.

“When women are coming year after year, they can compare the new mammogram to the old mammogram to see if there is a change,” she added.

Screening mammograms are typically covered by insurance and do not usually require a doctor’s note to schedule, Coopey said. They are available whether or not a woman has had children before.

“I think that mammograms have been around for so long that we have got a lot of good data,” Coopey said. “They’re really good for screening breast cancer, and they've reduced the mortality from breast cancer by 40% since they started.”

Breast awareness

Mammograms can find potential problems before women even realize anything is wrong, Coopey said.

“The mammogram detects cancer before it starts symptoms — before you have a lump, before you have nipple discharge, before you have skin changes,” she said.

While mammograms are important to catching cancer early, before treatments like chemotherapy or mastectomy may be needed, Coopey encouraged regular self-checks to keep an eye on any obvious lumps, even for those under 40 years old.

“If you notice a lump, or notice a change in the skin or the nipple, you should always see your doctor for evaluation,” Coopey said. “It's important to just know what your normal breast feels like and looks like, so that if you feel something or notice something earlier than (when you are) 40, you can come in for evaluation.”

While mammograms can sometimes be intimidating to those who have not had one before, Coopey emphasized that the pros outweigh the cons.

“Women avoid them because they think they are uncomfortable or painful,” she said. “It’s not comfortable, but it’s a really quick test, and you only need it once a year. The pros definitely outweigh the cost — the ability to detect cancer at an earlier size or an early stage, where you might not need chemo or (have) a breast removed.”

Contrary to occasional misconceptions, the X-ray portion of the mammogram is not something that would cause cancer, Coopey said.

“Sometimes we hear people say ‘Why would I get a mammogram? Is it radiation? Doesn’t radiation cause cancer?’” she said. “It’s radiation, but it’s such a low dose of radiation that it’s not in any way harmful.”

The widespread, common nature of breast cancer makes mammograms all the more important, Coopey said.

“It's the most common non-skin cancer for women, and the second leading cause in U.S. of cancer deaths for women, only second to lung cancer,” Coopey said. “It's important to do your screenings for that, so that if you catch something, you catch it at a very early stage.”

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