We all know that mammograms are an essential part of the early detection of breast cancer, but many of us still don’t get them as often as we should. It is important for all women, especially over the age of 40, to know what a mammogram is, and when and how often they should have a scan.

A mammogram is simply an x-ray designed specifically to look for abnormalities in the breast. They show lumps and abnormalities that may not be detected by simply looking at or feeling the breast. While they often detect benign lumps as well, they are fairly reliable at detecting cancerous growths.

While most doctors agree that women should get mammograms regularly after a certain age, they tend to disagree on what that age is. You may think the earlier the better, but not only do early mammograms use time and money, they have a high rate of false positives that could lead to unneeded invasive procedures. This false positive rate is higher the younger the patient. This not only wastes time and resources, but causes an immense amount of stress on the women who undergo these unneeded procedures.

Most doctors recommend you get your first mammogram between the age of 40 and 50, and then continue to get them every one to two years after that. Almost all doctors recommend getting at least one mammogram before the age of 50. This is not necessarily to detect a problem, but to give the doctor something to compare later scans to. By being able to see changes in the breast, your doctor is better able to detect a problem early.

The age of a first mammogram shouldn’t be the same for everyone though; there are a few factors that make getting them early more important. The first is family history. If your mom or grandmother had breast cancer, you’re more likely to get it as well, so your doctor will probably want to give you a more thorough screening. Also, your doctor may want to perform a mammogram earlier if you or they find a suspicious lump they want to investigate.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about digital mammograms. This is a great technology that can help save lives, but that doesn’t really mean you need to get a digital mammogram instead of a normal one. These two machines produce the same picture, but a digital mammogram can do it faster because it doesn’t require films to be developed. This new technology allows doctors to take a picture of an abnormality while they’re performing surgery, making their cuts more exact, but it makes little difference when getting a routine scan.

While mammograms are important, they shouldn’t be your only defense against breast cancer. It is also important to perform a monthly breast self-exam to help with early detection of problems, and to have yearly exams by your doctor to detect breast and reproductive issues.

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