Is it OK to Skip my Mammogram?

Casually flipping through a magazine while waiting for her mammogram results, RAYUS patient Andrea Ahlm doesn’t look concerned. Underneath though, she feels a little on edge. In part, it’s because she’s had a breast cancer scare before. Her mammogram caught something and the moment she heard “biopsy” Andrea says she stopped processing what her doctor was saying. Luckily, the suspicious mass didn’t turn out to be cancer. But she’s had too many friends who haven’t been as fortunate. One close friend in particular tended to skip mammograms and was diagnosed with breast cancer at a late stage.

“Her cancer did actually metastasize before she caught it,” Andrea explains. “And she was one of those that didn’t go to the doctor very often. She was telling everyone, ‘Get your mammogram every year,’ before she passed away.”

Bringing her friend’s memory with her to her annual mammogram, Andrea swears she won’t skip an exam and wants to help get the word out to other women.

Putting Off Your Annual Exam

Mammograms can be like flossing your teeth or tracking your monthly budget – you know you need to do it, but it’s easy to skip. If you’ve missed a mammo (or two) you should know that you’re not alone. Research by the CDC suggests that 66% of women over age 40 in the U.S. are getting mammograms regularly, says Dr. Paula George, a breast radiologist at RAYUS’s Midwest Breast Care. The statistic may sound encouraging, except Dr. George says we’re actually losing ground lately.

“Back in 1987 about 29% of women were getting screening mammograms yearly. In 2009 about 70%, so that was our highest, where we peaked, and now we’re about 66% for the last few years. We have a long way to go to screen all women but there’s definitely a drop in the number of women getting screened.”

Despite the downtrend, the American Cancer Society reports that fewer women are dying from breast cancer, due in part to early detection and increased awareness. Dr. Hayley Sheldon, a breast radiologist at RAYUS says one-third fewer women are dying today from breast cancer compared to 1990. “That’s an amazing statistic,” Dr. Sheldon says. “The mortality has decreased by one-third. We obviously hope it continues to improve and one day no one will die from breast cancer.”

Watch the video below to learn about getting back on track after skipping an annual mammogram:

Fear of the Unknown

Let’s say you miss one year, and then a second appointment slides by. The nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you should get a mammogram might start fighting with the louder voice wondering, “But what if they find something?” Dr. George likes to remind worried patients of these facts:

  • Mammography is one of the most successful screening tools we have to detect cancer.
  • It’s a very low-dose X-ray.
  • 92% of women getting screening mammograms are normal, so your chances of being normal are very high.
  • Of the 8% who get called back, the vast majority of those patients turn out to be normal too.
  • Mammograms are covered by nearly all insurance companies at 100%, so there’s no deductible or out-of-pocket for screening mammograms.
  • It’s an easy test, takes a few minutes to do, and is relatively painless.
  • It’s really one of the best things you can do for your health.

Even if something suspicious is spotted when you go back for a mammogram after missing some appointments, that’s not a death sentence, says Dr. Sheldon. “The whole goal of breast imaging and mammography screening is to detect it early. Stage 0 and Stage 1 cancers are the early cancers that we’re looking for and those are 100% curable. This is why it’s so important to do your annual screening.”

Getting Back on Track

So how do you get back into the annual mammogram routine? It’s as simple as calling to make an appointment and then showing up, just like Andrea Ahlm. When she stepped into the exam room for her mammo, she was thinking of the friend she lost:

“I walk in the room and I think about her. The early detection thing, I think, is the biggest deal. She kicked herself many times. She was just afraid of having it done and when she got the diagnosis, then she started telling everybody go get your mammogram. Don’t be afraid of finding something because finding something early is your best road to making it through.”

In her friend’s memory, Andrea wouldn’t dream of skipping her annual mammogram. She knows the routine can save lives. Dr. Sheldon couldn’t agree more. “If you haven’t had a mammogram in one year, five years, ten years – just do it. Go do it. The risks are minimal and the rewards are so great.”