Mammograms are something many women don't have to consider until the age of 50, but when it comes to breast cancer prevention, there are things women of all ages can do to lower their risks.
Dr. Ed Kucharski, regional primary care lead at Cancer Care Ontario, says regardless of your age, you should always be aware of your breasts to see if there are any irregularities and follow up with your family doctor. Self-examinations are no longer recommended, he says.
"Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Ontario and Canada," he tells The Huffington Post Canada, adding for women between the ages of 50 to 74, it is standard across Canada to get a mammogram every two years.
Mammograms are x-rays of the breasts and can help doctors detect cancer early on, the Canadian Cancer Society notes. However, like any type of test some risks involved include false positive results, false negative results or an over-diagnosis.
Kucharski adds certain communities, including the South Asian community and women living in rural areas, are getting screenings at a lower rate. His organization has even developed mobile options for women who don't live in the city and videos in different languages to help change some of these statistics.
Below, Kucharski answers some of the most common questions women have about mammograms.
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Regional primary care lead Dr. Ed Kucharski of Cancer Care Ontario says mammograms are still one of the most reliable ways to detect breast cancer early on. And although they are recommended for women in a certain age group, here are some things everyone can keep in mind.
But will a mammogram hurt? Kucharski says many people have theories of how mammograms feel, and for the most part, there are a lot of myths out there about pain. "I like to reassure people and say it's not painful. A glass plate pushes down on the breast tissue — it is similar to getting your blood pressure measured," he says. And it only takes a few minutes.
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When should I get one? Kucharski says women, for the most part, should get mammograms every two years between the ages of 50 and 74. Women in this age group benefit the most from regular screenings.
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Why you should consider one (when the time is right): Kucharski says breast cancer has one of the highest survival rates when compared to other cancers, so getting tested ahead of time — either with a mammogram or a check-up with your doctor — is a good prevention method.
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Know your risks when you're younger: Women under 50 should have prevention on their mind, Kucharski says. "What we don't talk about is alcohol and cancer risk. If you choose to drink, one drink a day is more than enough," he says. Generally, "one drink" means five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer and 1.5 ounces of liqueur.
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Should I check for breast cancer myself? Self-examinations are important to familiarize yourself with how your breasts regularly feel and to see if there are any irregularities. However, Kucharski says self examinations can lead to a lot of anxiety and self diagnoses. If there are certain things you notice right away like lumps or nipple discharge, contact your doctor for a check-up.
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What else can I do to stay healthy? For women under 50, exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight will also reduce your risks of cancer, Kucharski says.
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What if my mom had breast cancer? A majority of Canadian women have someone in their life who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, Kucharski says. "The good news is curing and treating breast cancer has improved dramatically." Women under 50 should take time to learn more about their family's medical history to see if there are any potential risks, he says.