Are Mammograms Harmful?

There has been much recent media coverage on the use of mammograms, with many claiming that the exposure to radiation and breast compression can actually cause (rather than simply detect) cancer. Others refute these claims and argue that mammograms are the most effective way to detect breast cancer. Are mammograms harmful? When should you seek this treatment? Read on to learn more about mammograms and whether you should seek one.

What happens during a mammogram?

A mammogram involves compressing the breast tissue and taking three-dimensional images of it to detect the presence of any tumors or cancerous cells. Because these X-rays are taken from a variety of different angles, doctors are able to examine all breast tissue -- even deep lumps or calcifications that may not be detectable by a breast self-examination.

During a mammogram, you will put your breasts into a machine that compresses them from top to bottom and side to side. This allows the X-ray image to go as deep as possible and allow the doctor to view the largest area. After your mammogram, you may take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for any residual discomfort.

Are mammograms harmful?

Some argue that any elective exposure to radiation is harmful and can lead to detrimental physical consequences, including growth of cancer cells. However, the amount of radiation used in a mammogram is negligible -- similar to the amount you receive annually from the sun's rays, or from having a microwave in your home.

Mammograms have been shown to reduce the number of breast cancer deaths in many women -- particularly those over age 50. Early diagnosis is often key to treatment, and mammograms remain the most effective way to diagnose the beginning stages of cancer.

When should you get a mammogram?

Because radiation exposure becomes more dangerous when repeated over time, several organizations no longer recommend routine mammograms for women in their forties -- age 50 is now the baseline. However, other national organizations still recommend annual screenings beginning at age 40. Ultimately, this is a decision to be made between you and your doctor, based on your overall health, risk factors, and any family history of breast cancer.

In general, if you're at a higher risk of breast cancer or have a mother, grandmother, or other female relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer, you may want to opt with earlier and more frequent screenings just for your own peace of mind. (go here for more information on mammography)