When Should You Start, and How Often Should You Get a Breast Cancer Screening?

Early detection and prevention are two of the best tools against cancer. Getting regular breast cancer screenings allows doctors to spot early signs of the disease when it is most treatable.

Healthcare worker with mammography scanner

There are different recommendations about the frequency of breast cancer screening, depending on your age and level of risk. Here are answers to some common questions, including when to start breast cancer screening and how often to get a breast cancer screening.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a type of X-ray. It takes a picture of the breast. In many ways, it is similar to any other X-ray. However, with a mammogram, you place your breast on a special surface. A technician lowers a plate on top of your breast so it is pressed firmly between two surfaces. Then, they take the X-ray.

A mammogram takes a picture of the breast from the top and, through a similar process, from the sides of the breast.

What are your concerns based on your age?

Different reputable organizations have slightly different recommendations about how often someone should have a mammogram and starting at what age.

By speaking with your doctor, you can come up with a schedule that is right for you. Your doctor will take into account your personal risk and your feelings about breast cancer screening.

Having mammograms at too early an age or too frequently increase the risk of a false positive result.

Here are the recommendations from the American Cancer Society and the American College of Physicians for women at average risk of developing breast cancer.

American Cancer Society

  • Women aged 40 to 44: Should have the choice to start annual mammogram screening.
  • Women aged 45 to 54: Should have an annual mammogram.
  • Women aged 55 to 74: Should have a mammogram once a year or once every two years.
  • Women aged 75 years or older: Should continue receiving mammograms as long as they remain in good health.

American College of Physicians

  • Women aged 40 to 49: Doctors should discuss breast cancer screening, however, the risks of mammography outweigh the benefits in women of this age group.
  • Women aged 50 to 74: Doctors should offer a mammogram once every two years.
  • Women 75 years or older: Mammograms are not recommended.

These recommendations only apply to those with an average risk of developing breast cancer. If you have a family history of the disease or if you carry a gene mutation, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, or if you are otherwise at higher risk, your doctor may recommend a different screening schedule.

What do I need to know about breast cancer?

Anyone can get breast cancer. But it’s most common among women over the age of 50. Your chances of getting breast cancer are greater if you have a family history of the disease or if you have certain gene mutations.

Many people with breast cancer have no symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, there are several signs that you may experience.

  • Lump in the breast or underarm.
  • Breast swelling or thickening of tissue.
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • Changes in the skin of the breast, such as dimpling, redness, flakes or irritation.
  • Breast pain.
  • Abnormal discharge.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you may want to speak with a doctor. They may be signs of breast cancer or another health condition that your doctor can treat.

What should I expect from my mammogram appointment?

A mammogram usually only takes a few moments. Because a technician or other healthcare professional presses your breast between two plates, the procedure can cause some discomfort.

Some women choose not to have a mammogram in the week leading up to their period, or while they are menstruating, because at this time, the breasts can be tender.

You’ll have to undress from the waist up for the exam. You may choose to wear clothing that is easy to change in and out of, for your comfort, during the appointment. The clinic may offer you a hospital gown to wear.

What questions should I ask my physician?

You should feel comfortable asking your doctor any questions on your mind. In regard to breast cancer screening, you may want to address:

  • What is my personal risk for developing breast cancer?
  • How often do you recommend I receive a mammogram?
  • What are the benefits of getting regular breast cancer screening?
  • What are the risks of breast cancer tests like mammograms and MRIs?
  • How can I monitor my breast health at home?

Working with your healthcare team, you can develop the best strategy to detect any early signs of breast cancer.

What is breast cancer screening?

Breast cancer screening can include a mammogram. But can also involve other tests and discussions with your doctor about ways to understand your breast cancer risk. In addition to a mammogram, your doctor may also perform:

  • A breast MRI
  • A clinical breast exam

A breast MRI takes pictures of your breasts. However, because there is a chance an MRI may bring up false positive results, it is only used for women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer.

A clinical breast exam is similar to a breast self-examination you might do at home. During this type of exam, a member of the medical team, such as your doctor or nurse, will feel the breast for lumps or changes in the breast tissue.

What are the benefits of getting an annual screening?

A mammogram can detect early signs of breast cancer, as much as three years before you can feel a lump in your breast. Early detection means your doctors have a greater number of options to treat the cancer, and there’s also a greater chance of a successful outcome.

Regular screening also gives you the opportunity to talk to your doctor about your personal risk for breast cancer. Your healthcare provider can give you information about what you can do to monitor your own health, such as changes in your breast that you should have checked out by a doctor.

Regular mammograms also give doctors a baseline of what your breasts look like when they are healthy. It is, therefore, easier to spot changes in the breasts over time.

When should I contact a physician?

Contact your doctor whenever you are ready to begin the conversation about breast cancer screening. In particular, if you have a family member who has had breast cancer or if you are 40 years of age or older, you may want to make an appointment.

Why choose a provider at Intermountain Health?

Intermountain Health is focused on care in your community. Our network of specialists includes OB-GYNs and other experts on women’s health. We are dedicated to listening to you and your needs. Use our find a provider tool today to schedule an appointment to learn more about breast cancer screening.

*This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or diagnosis from a physician or qualified healthcare professional.

Part of being well is being heard.