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The importance of screening mammograms

With October marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Alberta Health Services (AHS) is reminding women of the importance of regular screening exams and mammograms to detect early signs of breast cancer.

According to AHS, a screening mammogram – a routine check by a health-care professional – is the best way to diagnose breast cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

“We do promote women to get screened on a regular basis, because we do believe it is really important to find early stages of cancer,” said Bonnie Chiang, a nurse with AHS.

According to Chiang, AHS recommends women aged 50 to 74 get screened every two years, as the risk of breast cancer increases as they get older. However, women aged 40 to 49 should consult their health-care provider before receiving their first mammogram, as it is less clear if the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risks for younger women.

Chiang said AHS doesn’t recommend mammograms for women aged 40 or younger, as there is a much lower risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer at that age.

Various physical symptoms could also indicate something is not right, according to Chiang, such as dimpling, retractions of the nipple or bleeding.

“If they feel or see anything change, that’s when we say they should go talk to their health-care provider,” she said. “At that time, it’s no longer just screening that is required ­– they need a diagnostic mammogram to see what’s going on.”

Considering one in eight women in Alberta are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, Chiang said, opting to receive a mammogram could be a life-saving decision.

“We don’t know exactly how much screening [alone] contributes to what we call the mortality rate, but there is a decrease in mortality rate between screening and treatment, so the combination of the two,” she said. “If you do participate in [these exams], some studies have shown there is a decrease in mortality anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent, depending on which study you are reporting.”

Mammograms are performed at radiology clinics, which are plentiful in Calgary and can also be found in Cochrane and Airdrie. To find your closest cancer-screening clinic, Chiang said, women can input their postal code at screeningforlife.ca

“Women 50 to 74, if they haven’t had one in the past two years, they can call up any radiology clinic that does mammograms – whichever one they prefer – and they can book an appointment and show up for the exam,” she said.

As for the mammogram itself, Chiang said, the discomfort level of each woman varies during the process, as the tissue needs to be flattened as much as possible for the X-ray to be effective.

“There is definitely compression of the breast, because we need to get the breast flat enough so we can actually see as much as we can through the X-ray image,” she said.

“For some women, that might be considered discomfort, while for other women, it’s considered very painful.”

Results are usually mailed back within 10 business days, according to Chiang. However, if any areas of concern are found, health-care providers will be notified so patients can receive a verbal notification sooner.




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Scott Strasser

About the Author: Scott Strasser

Scott Strasser, sports/RCMP reporter
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