Breast cancer screenings are important. But if you’re confused about how often to have a mammogram or when to start, you’re not alone.

Recently, leading health experts have disagreed about the benefits of earlier or more frequent screening. And respected groups do not agree on screening guidelines.

So what’s the best advice? Talk to your doctor. That conversation is the time to discuss your overall health, your risk factors and your family medical history. Those are the things that influence what screening schedule is best for you.

Don’t put off that discussion. Regular screenings can help spot a potential problem before it becomes a serious health issue. And preventive screenings are a big part of fighting cancer. Screening for breast cancer can help spot the disease early, when it’s simpler to treat.

If you are a women age 20 or older, talk to your doctor about clinical breast exams. If you are over the age of 40, discuss the benefits and risks of having a clinical breast exam and mammogram.

Your doctor may want you to be screened earlier if you have a family history of breast or other cancers. That’s why it is important to form a relationship with your doctor, and plan a yearly well-woman visit.

Advantages and Limitations of Mammograms

It‘s vital to know what to expect from this type of screening and to understand the benefits and limits of mammograms.

Decades of research shows that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to find breast cancer early. That makes them less likely to need aggressive treatments like chemotherapy or surgery to remove the breast (mastectomy). And they are more likely to be cured.

But mammograms are not perfect. Some cancers are missed. And more tests may be needed to find out if something found on a mammogram is cancer or not. There is a chance of being diagnosed and treated for a type of breast cancer that would not have been a health threat.

If your results are normal, continue to get mammograms according to the plan you’ve set with your doctor. Comparing a current mammogram to earlier mammograms helps show changes in your breasts.

An abnormal mammogram report does not always mean that there is cancer. But you will need to have more tests or exams before the doctor can tell for sure.

You may be referred to a breast specialist or a surgeon. That does not necessarily mean you have cancer or that you will need surgery.

Reducing Risk

Many factors influence your breast cancer risk. Some you can’t change, such as age or family history.

But some you can. In addition to getting routine screenings, you may be able to cut your risk by making good health choices. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle choices you can make.

You may be able to help lower your risk if you:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise regularly (at least four hours a week)
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one per day
  • Avoid exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer
  • Limit exposure to radiation from medical imaging tests like X-rays
  • Rethink decisions on taking hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills