“Doctor, I don’t want to get a mammogram this year because it hurts!”  “I heard that the radiation from a mammogram causes cancer.”  “If I have breast cancer, the pressure from the mammogram machine on my breast will cause it to spread.”

As a gynecologist for 17 years, I have heard many reasons why women don’t want to get a mammogram, Dr. Allison Hills says.  And I have noticed a trend that relates to the technique of the mammogram itself.  Many women ask if there are alternatives to the traditional “squishing” machine.

The short answer is no.  The mammogram is still our best tool for screening and diagnosing breast cancer in the general population.  While it is not perfect, it allows us to detect many breast cancers when they are small and curable.  Mammograms do not cause cancer and putting pressure on a tumor by the mammogram machine will not cause it to spread.  A typical mammogram delivers 0.7 mSv. (mSV is a millisievent, a measurement of radiation dose.)  To cause a cancer to form within the breast, one would need to be exposed to over 200 mSV of radiation – meaning at least 285 mammograms.

Other imaging studies – like ultrasounds, MRI’s, and thermography – are not as effective as mammograms for screening women for breast cancer.  Ultrasounds are used to evaluate specific areas of the breast that an exam or mammogram finds suspicious.  They can easily distinguish a cyst from a solid tumor.  MRI’s show great views of the breast but they are expensive and are used when a mammogram result is unclear or when a woman is at particularly high risk for breast cancer.  Thermography produces an infrared image of the breast.  In theory, because cancer has more blood flow than regular tissue, breast cancer would show up as a “hot” lesion on a thermogram.  However, there is no scientific evidence that thermography is as effective as a mammogram in the detection of breast cancer.  Like ultrasounds and MRI’s, it should be used only as an additional tool.

A mammogram lasts about 30 seconds for each side.  Yes, the breast tissue is compressed and squeezed like a pancake.  But I always tell my patients that cancer hurts more.  The mammogram is our best tool and all women should take advantage of its availability.

~ Dr. Hill