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Mammogram Screenings Remain No. 1 in Early Detection of Breast Cancer

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According to radiologist at SNMH Diagnostic Imaging Center, Dr. Michael Hallenbeck, annual screening mammograms are still the best early detection method for women in their 40s and beyond.

“Annual mammograms can detect cancer early, when it is most treatable. In fact, mammograms show changes in the breast up to two years before a patient or physician can feel them,” said Hallenbeck who also noted that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

While nurse navigator at the Sierra Nevada Women’s Imaging Center, Linda Aeschliman said “special funding is available through the Barbara Schmidt Millar Fund and the Susan G. Komen Fund for women who aren’t insured or can’t afford the screening.”

Aeschliman also pointed out that health insurance coverage attained under the Affordable Care Act must, as of January 1, include well-women checkups and screening mammograms.

“All new health insurance plans must cover preventive care and medical screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies, as well as women’s services such as breast-feeding support, contraception and domestic violence screening. Health insurance companies cannot charge copayments, coinsurance or deductibles for such services,” explained Covered California, the nonprofit organization established to help guide individuals and businesses through the selection and enrollment process.

The SNMH Women’s Imaging Center has also put together a series of Moonlight Mammogram events to encourage women to get their annual screenings.

“Some women are anxious about getting a mammogram. We are happy to answer questions and provide information, which can go a long way to relieve that anxiety,” said Aeschliman.

Aeschliman also mentioned the Moonlight Mammogram program is adding a little bit of fun to the process.mammgaphy no 1

“We stay open in the evening and have music, food, beverages, and offer chair massages to women getting their mammograms. Bring a friend or family member,” she said.

Some women allude to a number of fears as excuses not to undergo a mammogram screening.

“Our mammogram unit uses flexible compression to achieve the best and sharpest images, while applying the least amount of compression,” said Aeschliman.

Hallenbeck recommended that women with sensitive breasts should schedule their appointment for when their breasts are least tender, so as to avoid any potential discomfort.

“Some express fear of radiation exposure, but X-rays usually have no side effects in the typical diagnostic range for this exam. In fact, the benefit of an accurate diagnosis far outweighs this risk,” said Hallenbeck.

Hallenbeck highly recommends women to begin conducting annual screening at the age of 40, or earlier if they find a lump in their breast. This same recommendation has also been made by the American Cancer Society, the American College of Radiology, and the Society of Breast Imaging.

Screenings are also vital to women whose family histories have included breast cancer.

Breast cancer may also be caused by inherited gene mutations, which account for five to ten percent of all breast cancers,” said Hallenbeck.

“While family history is an important factor the Imaging Center employs the broader risk assessment tool developed by the National Cancer Institute: age, age at start of menstruation, age at first live birth, number of first degree relatives with breast cancer (mother, sisters, daughters), number of previous breast biopsies, and at least one breast biopsy with atypical hyperplasia (accumulation of abnormal cells). Other risk factors include age at menopause, dense breast tissue on a mammogram, use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, a high-fat diet, drinking alcohol, low physical activity, obesity and environmental exposures,” he added.

Hallenbeck considers mammography to be the best available screening tool, but new technology continues to be developed that will further enhance the process of detecting breast cancer.

“In the near future, SNMH will add Breast Tomosynthesis or 3D mammography, which will significantly increase the cancer detection rate in women with dense breast tissue.”

In addition, the hospital will be adding Automated Whole Breast Ultrasound.

“This is an extremely useful adjunct to screening mammography in patients with dense breasts and in women looking for a screening alternative to mammography,” he said.

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