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Breast cancer screening: what you need to know


1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer at some point in her life. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 833. 1 Thankfully, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk — including breast cancer screening.


What is breast cancer screening?

Breast cancer screening is a way of finding breast cancer in people who have no symptoms. Detecting cancer before any symptoms show up allows treatment to start earlier, which improves the chances of success.2

If you wait until a lump is big enough to feel, it may be harder to remove easily, or the cancer may have spread.


How does breast cancer screening work?

Breast cancer screening usually involves getting a mammogram. Mammograms are special X-rays that are used to look for cancer that may be too small to feel or see.

Mammograms squeeze your breasts between two X-ray plates.3 This may be painful, but the discomfort shouldn’t last very long.


Who should have breast cancer screening?

In the U.S., healthcare providers recommend screening every 1 or 2 years between the ages of 50 and 74.4 Some women should get screened for breast cancer starting at age 40, or even younger. Women between the ages of 40-50 should talk to their doctor about when they need a mammogram.5

In the UK, the NHS recommends all women over 50 have their breasts checked. You’ll then be invited to a screening every 3 years until you’re 71.3

Keep in mind that younger people have more dense breast tissue, making a mammogram harder to read. They’re also at lower risk of cancer in general. This means that there’s a higher chance of a mammogram showing a problem when there isn’t one. This is called a false positive.6 Sometimes this can lead to further investigations or treatments that are not needed.


Know your risk

Some people are more likely to get breast cancer than others.

It’s a good idea to understand your own risk for breast cancer, so you can decide whether, and when, you’d like to go ahead with screening.

You may have a higher chance of getting breast cancer if you have:

  • Several close relatives who have had breast or ovarian cancer, or both
  • A change in certain genes (mutation). Commonly affected genes include BRCA1, BRCA2 or TP533

There are many other factors that affect your risk of getting breast cancer. Some of them cannot be changed. These include:6

  • Sex: being a woman puts you at higher risk as you have more breast tissue, but men can get breast cancer too
  • Environment: radiation exposure to the chest and environmental pollutants such as certain chemicals can increase your risk
  • Early periods: if you started your periods before age 12, you’re at increased risk of breast cancer

And there are lifestyle factors linked with breast cancer:

  • Weight: being overweight and gaining weight as an adult increases your risk of cancer
  • Low physical activity
  • Alcohol: drinking alcohol is linked with a higher risk of cancer
  • Smoking: smoking is linked with cancer, especially if you started at a young age
  • Certain hormonal treatments, such as contraceptive pills or hormone replacement therapies, may increase the risk. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out more about the balance of benefits and risks for you
  • Children: having children over the age of 30 or having no children puts you at higher risk of breast cancer


Are there any downsides to breast cancer screening?

Generally, breast cancer screening is safe. The radiation used is very low.7

But as with all medical procedures, there are some risks that you should think about:

  • Screening could show a problem where there isn’t one (a false positive). This could mean you have further tests that you don’t need. This is more likely in younger people.
  • There’s also a risk that there might be cancer not seen on the mammogram (a false negative), which may delay treatment.


What else can I do?

Along with being screened, there are more steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer:

  • Be breast aware. This means getting to know your breasts and checking regularly for any changes. Find out more in Babylon’s video on breast awareness
  • Stick to a nutritious, well-balanced diet
  • Aim for a healthy weight8


How can Babylon help?

The Babylon support team can help you find out which mammogram facility is covered by your insurance. In some cases, we can also help to set up transportation.

If you have questions about your mammogram, you can book an appointment to talk to a Babylon provider.


References

  1. US Breast Cancer Statistics. Breastcancer.org. https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics, updated 13 January 2022
  2. What is Breast Cancer Screening? Center for Disease Control. www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/screening.htm updated 22 September 2021
  3. Breast screening (mammogram). NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-screening-mammogram/, updated 21 September 2021
  4. Breast Cancer: Screening. US Preventive Services Task Force. www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/breast-cancer-screening, published 11 January 2016
  5. USPSTF. Screening for Breast Cancer: Recommendation Statement. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Apr 15;93(8): www.aafp.org/afp/2016/0415/od1.html#afp20160415p684a-b1
  6. Are you susceptible? Breast Cancer UK.www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/about-breast-cancer/are-you-susceptible/, accessed 8 February 2022
  7. Zeb, S. 6 Mammogram Myths. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/breast-cancer/6-mammogram-myths#, accessed 8 February 2022
  8. Reduce Your Risk: Diet and Weight. Breast Cancer UK. https://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/reduce-your-risk/diet-and-weight/, accessed 8 February 2022


The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.