Keeping A Breast: the value of mammograms in early detection of breast cancer

It’s not every woman’s most favourite way to spend a morning – but having a mammogram has proven considerably effective in the early detection of cancer, often leading to the subsequent saving of lives. Apart from regular self-examination, doctors recommend an annual mammogram to ensure breast health and for early alerts to any abnormality. These procedures should begin from about age 40 even if there has been no symptoms or family history of breast cancer.

What is breast cancer?

Cancer begins when cells anywhere in the body start to grow out of control. When malignant cells originate in the breast the result may be a tumor that develops and invades surrounding tissues and even spreads to other parts of the body.

The female breast is made up mainly of lobules (milk-producing glands), ducts (tiny tubes that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipple), and stroma (fatty tissue and connective tissue surrounding the ducts and lobules, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels). Most breast cancers begin in the cells that line the ducts (ductal cancers) but some may also begin in the cells that line the lobules (lobular cancers), while a small number may start in other tissues.

The lymph system is one way breast cancers can spread. Lymphatic vessels are like small veins, except that they carry a clear fluid away from the breast. In this way, cancer cells may enter lymphatic vessels and begin to grow in lymph nodes. There is then a much higher chance that the cells from here may enter the bloodstream and spread the cancer to other areas of the body.

That is why monitoring breast health and advocating regular screening is so important.

The value of a mammogram in early detection

  • A mammogram is a quick medical exam that uses non-invasive X-rays targeting each breast.
  • The pictures produced assist your doctor to identify the possible presence of cancer.
  • Mammograms can show changes in the breast for up to two years before a patient or a physician can feel them, which makes this procedure vitally important for early detection of cancer.
  • This detection catches the condition at its most treatable stage and helps to prevent the spread of the cancer, later radical surgery and even death.

Are you at risk?

  • Age: The older you are, the greater the chance of getting breast cancer. Nearly 80 percent of breast cancers are found in women over the age of 50.
  • Personal history: A woman who has had breast cancer in one breast is at an increased risk of developing cancer in the second breast.
  • Family history: If your mother or a sister has had breast cancer, especially before 40, you may be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Genetic factors: Women with certain genes – the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes – are at higher risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime.
  • Childbearing and menstrual history: The older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her risk of breast cancer. Also at higher risk are: women who menstruate for the first time at an early age (before 12); women who go through menopause late (after age 55); women who’ve never had children.

Limitations

Along with the benefits, there are certain limitations to yearly mammograms, and your doctor must discuss these with you.

  • Breast density varies widely among women, and cancer is more difficult to detect in mammograms of women with radiographically dense breasts.
  • Women may express anxiety about pain levels which are sometimes reported due to the compression of the breast – but these experiences are in the minority of cases and often aroused by the anticipation of pain. Your doctor should advise you not to have a mammogram too close to a period as this may increase discomfit.
  • Even though mammograms can detect breast cancers too small to be felt, treating a small tumor does not always mean it can be cured. A fast-growing or aggressive cancer may have already spread before it’s found.
  • The value of a screening mammogram also depends on a woman’s overall health status. Detecting breast cancer early may not help prolong the life of a woman who has other health problems such as congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease or chronic obstructive lung disease.
  • A mammogram may return a false-negative result even though breast cancer is present. Overall, mammograms may not find about 1 in 5 breast cancers.
  • A mammogram may also return a false-positive result while no cancer may actually be present. False-positive results are more common in women who are younger, have dense breasts, have had breast biopsies, have breast cancer in the family, or are taking estrogen. False-positive mammograms can obviously lead to unnecessary anxiety – and extra testings are required to confirm or disprove the presence of cancer.

But despite these possible issues, mammograms still remain the most effective and valuable tool for decreasing suffering and death from breast cancer.

The Feminine Curve

Breast cancer goes so much further than just the disease itself – it stretches to the very core of how a woman sees herself. Breasts define a woman, her very identity and femininity. For many women, breasts are the most important part of her body – a most valued element of her physical appearance, her sense of being and of self-worth. Losing a breast or both breasts is more than merely losing a body part, it can for many women cut deeply into their psyche, making it difficult for them to see themselves as the same people beyond the surgery.

But it is exactly this aspect that makes mammograms such an essential part of a woman’s health programme. Breast health should be entwined with who you are, as important as daily diet, exercise and your value of self. Proactive vigilance, care and regular screening are tools to help you manage the health map of your life, protecting not only your wellbeing but also individuality, self-esteem, dignity and vitality of persona.

Schnetler, Corbett and Partners Radiology (SCP) is an established radiology practice in Cape Town. We deliver high-quality and appropriate diagnostic radiological procedures utilising the latest available technologies, supported by research, correct procedures and quality imaging. We practice wholly empathic patient-centered care, making sure our procedures are provided in the most sensitive manner possible. Branches extend from the Christiaan Barnard Hospital in the CBD to the northern suburbs, Paarl, Eerste River, Vredenburg and Vredendal.

SCP is supporting the Radiological Society of South Africa’s breast awareness month.  Various radiology practices throughout South-Africa will be partaking in this initiative. Within their Mammo Month Campaign, SCP aims to create awareness amongst South African women about the value of being reflecting on their health, becoming self-aware and responsible – as being responsible can be so rewarding.

Find out more about us at: www.scp.co.za