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Who? When? Why? Navigating Breast Cancer Screening

By Zachary Whitaker, D.O. HonorHealth Family Medicine Residency, PGY-1

Summary – Your health and well-being are the primary goal! So, if you’re wondering when to start, what timeline to follow, or what your risk may be for breast cancer, speak to your physician and share your concerns, priorities, and values. Together, you can determine the best plan for you!

You, like many women, may be wondering when you should start getting screened for breast cancer. You may have heard different things from different friends, family members, or even doctors—you are not alone! One of the main reasons for those differences is that there are multiple organizations that give recommendations on what age screening should start and how frequently it should be done. Each woman’s individual risk for cancer and her preferences are also taken into account. Breast cancer screening looks for signs of possible cancer before symptoms are present. Having a positive screening test does not mean you have cancer. Further, diagnostic testing is required to actually diagnose cancer. The currently accepted best test for screening is mammography (a special low-dose X-ray).

Who should get screened? All women who do not have symptoms and who have never had breast cancer.

When should I get screened? This is where much of the confusion arises. The governing bodies of different medical organizations develop their own recommendations. Overall, the recommended age range for women at average risk to begin screening is between 40 and 50 years old. Some organizations recommend yearly screening, while others every 2 years. And some recommend stopping at age 74, while others recommend continuing until individual life expectancy decreases to less than 5 or 10 years. Bottom line: most women should start by at least age 50 and get it at least every 2 years until at least age 74.

Why should I get screened? Cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death in adult women in the United States. Breast cancer accounts for the second greatest number of deaths from all cancers in that same demographic. It is also one of the few cancers we have effective screening for, and the earlier cancer is found, the greater the chance of effective treatment and survival.