By Kristen Coburn, FNP
First, let’s acknowledge that men can get breast cancer. The risk for males is significantly lower than the risk for females, but that doesn’t matter if you’re the man who receives this diagnosis. For the sake of simplicity, the rest of this article will refer to a female audience.
Who needs a mammogram? It seems like a simple question, but the answer isn’t the same for all.
Before we wade into the controversy, it’s important to know that a screening mammogram is different than a diagnostic mammo.
In Idaho, you can request a screening exam without a doctor’s order. If you don’t have any risk factors (age, family history, symptoms) your medical provider may recommend that you don’t need this screening. Screenings take less time, use a lower dose of radiation and provide general images of your breasts. Diagnostic mammos are prescribed by a medical provider, use a higher dose of radiation, and usually focus on specific areas of your breast(s). Your provider may order a diagnostic mammo based on your risk factors and other indicators, or you may be asked to get a diagnostic follow-up if the results from your screening mammogram indicate the need. Under current insurance mandates through the Affordable Care Act, screening mammos are covered by insurance, at no cost to the patient, for women 40 and over. Diagnostic mammos may or may not be covered 100% by insurance. It’s always a good idea to check with your insurer before you get a mammo or any type of medical care.
Resources on the internet offer a confusing mix of opinions on preventive mammogram screenings based on factors such as you’re under 55, over 40, overweight, underweight, a wine-drinker, vegetarian, under 25 with a family history, or menopausal. Of course, internet resources vary widely in the degree of science and research that went into the answer.
Most of us have heard the recommendation that every woman should have an initial screening at the age of 40, and every year or two after that. Over time, different medical research organizations have come forward with other studies and recommendations, not to mention all of the online experts sharing research from unsubstantiated sources. We’re frightened to hear about false-positives, false-negatives, overtreatment, under-treatment, and radiation exposure, and yes, all of these problems can occur. As with nearly every choice in life, we need to weigh potential benefits against possible harms.
What’s a woman to do?
At Teton Valley Health Care, we agree with the position of the National Cancer Institute: Talk to your provider. Together, come up with an informed plan that fits your preventive care needs based on proven outcomes. Ask questions and share information that concerns you. Choose what’s best for you: your body, your history, and your well-being.
Through donations from Teton Valley Hospital Foundation, our community hospital offers free screening mammograms for anyone who cannot afford them. The request form is one-page, requires no financial documents, and is simple to fill-out. Funding is also available to pay toward biopsies, ultrasounds, follow-up clinic visits, surgery, and travel costs related to breast cancer prevention and diagnosis. Call (208) 354-6331 for more information about this program.
For good health, prevention is the best route to take. Make sure you’ve had your vaccinations, and take advantage of screening opportunities that are recommended for you and your family. When in doubt, talk it out with an appropriate medical provider.