At What Age Should I Begin Screening For Breast Cancer?

It is predicted that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. The survival rate depends on each case individually, but mostly it reflects the type of cancer, the way it responds to treatment, and most importantly, the stage at which the cancer was found.

We have all probably heard about breast cancer screenings, some may have even been invited to attend a session, but does screening benefit everyone? And if so, when and how often should you go? The internet is full with opinions and advices and with cancer research trusts telling you one thing and the government guidelines another, it’s hard to know just when you should be taking this ‘screening thing’ a little more seriously.

Women who take part in mammography screening will have their breasts imaged with a specialized X-ray machine. This can detect any masses or impalpable lumps within the breast tissue that may be cause for concern. The general idea of regular screenings is to detect potential cancers at early stages, before they become problematic and when treatment is most successful. However, the effectiveness of mammograms used as a screening process is one of high debate and the term ‘over-diagnosis’ is often heard when weighing out the pros and cons of screening.

Over-diagnosis refers to cases when a cancerous mass is detected in someone undergoing a routine screen that would otherwise not have been discovered in their lifetime. IE – Detection of a benign, non-threatening mass. This would mean a bout of intense cancer treatment for something that is not serious and would never have presented clinical symptoms in the first place.

Still, one can never truly distinguish a benign and generally harmless breast lump from one that has the potential to develop into an invasive and lethal cancer. Therefore mammograms and routine breast cancer screenings are still considered a vital part in reducing the mortality associated with breast cancer. So, back to the question, just when should I begin screening?

Aside from gender, age is the biggest risk associated with breast cancer. Nearly four out of five new diagnoses are among women aged 50 and over with the highest range being 60 to 64. In addition, the breast tissue of pre-menopausal women below the age of 40 is much more dense and harder to characterize with mammograms alone. Therefore, unless a woman is placed in a high-risk group of developing cancer (ie – close family history or personal history of breast cancer, genetic predisposition or significant chest radiation exposure), the benefit of a mammogram is not significant enough to warrant invitation for screening before 40.

For the average woman, the official guidelines on when and how often you should go for screening vary from county to county. In general, all screening invitations begin at 50 and continue until the patient reaches 70 varying from every two to every three years.

So the conclusion is not to worry about breast cancer until you hit 40 or 50, right? Wrong. Breast cancer can occur in all types of ages, and both sexes. Many breast cancers are still found by women themselves, rather than periodic screening. The best way to become aware of any changes that occur would be to carry out regular breast self-examinations. Become familiar with what is normal so you can notice when it’s not.

Breast cancer is on the rise, but most importantly, so is survival rate. So if you do notice anything different or are worried about any lumps and bumps, speak to a health care provider immediately. The earlier the diagnosis, the more likely treatment can be successful.