How Often Should You Get a Mammogram? And at What Age Should You Start? Here’s What an OB/GYN Has to Say

How Often Should You Get a Mammogram universal
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In case you missed it, mammograms are a lifesaving breast cancer screening tool that all women benefit from…but how often should you get a mammogram, exactly? And at what age should you get your first one? Read on for answers to all your questions about this important procedure, courtesy of a board-certified OB/GYN.

Meet the expert

  • Dr. Nita Landry, MD, FACOG is a board-certified OB/GYN and author of Dr. Nita’s Crash Course for Women: Better Sex, Better Health, Better You.

How Often Should You Get Mammograms?

Per the expert, most organizations suggest either annual screening or screening every two years for women of average risk. (In her practice, Dr. Landry recommends annual screening.) Individual risk is a significant factor when it comes to determining how frequently you should be screened (more on that below), so women who fall into the higher risk category may be advised to go in for mammography screenings sooner and more often.

And When Should You Get Your First Mammogram?

Mammogram guidelines have changed over the years, and you might be surprised to learn that there’s no clear consensus on when women should start mammography screening. In general, Dr. Landry says the recommendation is that women of average breast cancer risk start screening at age 40 and continue until age 75. That said, the expert explains that some organizations advise waiting until age 50 to begin screening—namely because “earlier and more frequent screening increases the probability of a false positive…[which] can lead to unnecessary procedures, anxiety and potential bills.”

Of course, not every woman is of normal risk. Some factors that contribute to an elevated breast cancer risk include having family members on either side who were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, or having tested positive for a genetic mutation like BRCA1 and BRCA2. So what are the guidelines for individuals at increased risk, you ask? Well, that really depends on how elevated your breast cancer risk is—and the higher your risk, the more likely it is your doctor will recommend you start sooner. (Some high risk individuals even start screenings every six months in their twenties.)

Fortunately, there are several assessment tools your healthcare provider can use to determine your individual risk, so you don’t have to do the guesswork. “It’s really important for each woman to talk to their healthcare provider about their health history, as well as the risks and benefits of screening, in order to determine the right age and method,” the expert stresses.

What Can You Expect When You Go in for a Mammogram?

You’ve probably heard that mammograms are unpleasant—and there is, indeed, some mild discomfort involved, since the breast tissue must be compressed in order to get a clear image. Still, “most women report it’s not as painful as they thought it would be,” says Dr. Landry. So think of it like getting your teeth cleaned: It might not be fun, but you have nothing to fear.

Beyond that, it’s worth knowing that there are two different mammogram techniques commonly offered—namely the standard 2D mammogram and the higher tech 3D mammogram, which involves more images being taken. Dr. Landry explains that “from a patient perspective, the experience of getting a 2D or 3D mammogram is very similar; both require compression of the breast. However, since 3D mammograms provide more detailed images, they decrease your chance of a false positive. In addition, they modestly increase the detection of breast cancer.” (According to John Hopkins Medicine, the data shows a 40 percent decrease in false positives and a 40 percent increase in early detection.) Bottom line: If a 3D mammogram is made available to you, there’s good reason to go for it.

But regardless of which type of mammogram you get, the whole process will take a mere 10 to 15 minutes. You’ll show up (without wearing any lotions, perfumes or deodorant, as these can interfere with imaging), undress from the waist up and put on your gown, follow the technician’s instructions and be on your merry way. As for the results—those will typically be available from your doctor within a few days. So, what are you waiting for? Book your screening today.

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