Five reasons to schedule your next mammogram today

SPONSORED: It’s easy to come up with reasons to put off a screening mammogram -- but Alaska medical experts say there’s no excuse to delay the lifesaving test.

Presented by Providence Imaging Center

Have you had your mammogram yet this year?

For too many Alaska women, the answer is no.

“Screening usage by patients fell down quite a bit during the calendar year 2020 due to COVID,” said Anchorage breast surgeon Dr. Laurie Bleicher. “I don’t think it has ascended to the pre-COVID level yet.”

That worries Bleicher and other healthcare providers. It’s easy to put off scheduling a screening mammogram, but the simple diagnostic procedure is a powerful tool in the fight against breast cancer.

At Providence Imaging Center in Anchorage, COVID-19 safety protocols and a dedicated imaging staff mean that mammograms have been able to safely continue during the pandemic. But if you need a little more encouragement to get an appointment on your calendar, Alaska health care professionals say there are five great reasons to schedule your screening mammogram today:

1. Mammograms are safe.

A mammogram exposes you to a small amount of radiation -- less than a standard chest x-ray, and about as much as you’re already exposed to over the course of seven or eight weeks of normal daily life. That low dose of radiation provides enough visibility to spot tiny abnormalities long before they would be detectable in a breast exam done by hand.

“We have such good screening mechanisms for breast cancer these days,” Bleicher said.

2. Scheduling a mammogram is simple.

It’s recommended that women start getting mammograms at age 40. The Affordable Care Act requires that insurance companies cover the exam with no copay -- in fact, you can schedule a mammogram yourself, without a referral from your doctor. In Anchorage, you can simply log on to provimaging.com and request an appointment. And there’s almost nothing you need to do to get ready.

“There’s less preparation for a screening mammogram than (there is) to go have a colonoscopy,” Bleicher said.

3. A mammogram can tell you more than you think.

You probably know that a mammogram can tell you whether you have any unusual growths in your breasts. But did you know it can also help you assess your potential risk for developing breast cancer in the future?

Since 2018, the Providence Imaging Center has offered an additional analysis of the patient’s risk for carrying genetic mutations that cause breast cancer. This is calculated using what’s known as the Tyrer-Cuzick model. You can choose to receive a report that predicts the likelihood that you will develop breast cancer in the future, based on a range of factors including age, reproductive health history, genetics and breast density. Patients whose results indicate a percent of lifetime risk greater than 20% have access to more advanced screening, like breast MRI, and are often referred to Bleicher to talk about what proactive steps they can take to safeguard their health.

“You want to have a discussion and figure out how is she high risk, and how can you identify ways to reduce that risk,” Bleicher said. “There’s increased surveillance, and there’s genetics testing to sort of characterize the level of risk -- and then there are some risk reducing strategies, which might mean don’t drink too much alcohol, lose weight, exercise.”

4. Mammograms save lives.

Multiple recent studies have found that routine screening mammograms save lives by catching cancers early, when they can be treated more easily.

“The most options are open -- and the best prognosis comes -- to the person with a small cancer localized in the breast,” Bleicher said.

A screening mammogram can catch such a cancer long before it would be detectable by a self-exam, and the earlier a cancer is detected, the better off the patient is likely to be, she added.

“They probably would be eligible for a lot less treatment,” Bleicher said. “It’s not a guarantee that you won’t need chemotherapy, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Bleicher’s most frequently performed procedure these days is a partial mastectomy, or tumorectomy. It’s done under general anesthesia, but the patient is generally able to go home an hour or two after surgery. A smaller surgery means less for the body to recover from, which is better for the patient’s overall physical health, according to Bleicher.

5. A mammogram is easy.

If you’ve never had a mammogram -- or if it’s been a while since your last one -- you might have heard that it’s painful or unpleasant. In reality, the process is quick and generally painless.

“Mammography is minimally uncomfortable,” Bleicher said. “Some people have tenderness. They also have to physically pull the breast as far forward as possible so they can get all the tissue all the way to the chest wall. That’s a little uncomfortable, too.”

But compared to other uncomfortable routine health screenings, like a dental exam or having your eyes dilated, a mammogram is quick, generally completed in just a few minutes. In fact, many patients find that the anticipation of the appointment is far more unpleasant than the exam itself.

That was the case for Lynn, a breast cancer survivor who recently returned to Providence Imaging Center for her first mammogram since being diagnosed and undergoing treatment. (Lynn’s last name has been withheld to protect her privacy.) She was understandably nervous, but she said Providence Imaging Center staff soon put her at ease.

“The technician was excellent,” Lynn said. “She validated my fears and anxiety but also stated she would work with me to ensure we got good images if I could handle the pressure.”

The imaging technologist who administered her mammogram was clearly “very skilled” at relating to patients during what can be an emotional experience, Lynn added.

“I was happy I told her I was anxious and why,” she said. “She understood my tears and fears -- very respectful and kind, yet professional throughout the process.”

Lynn’s anxiety wasn’t unusual. It’s common for patients to feel nervous or emotional, according to Bleicher, especially if they have previously been diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, they don’t have long to wait for their results. Unlike lab tests that may require some time for analysis, screening mammograms only need to be reviewed by a radiologist. Often the images can be read the same day, and there’s a special effort to ensure that survivors like Lynn can get their results as soon as possible -- in many cases, before they leave the imaging center.

“Lots of patients work themselves into a frenzy going to the screening mammogram, but when they get their results, they’re very happy,” Bleicher said.

Learn more about what will happen at your appointment: Afraid of getting a mammogram? You’re not alone.

Presented by Providence Imaging Center, where we are open and ready to welcome you for your annual screening mammogram! Request your appointment today at provimaging.com/appointments.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Providence Imaging Center. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.