Since you've likely been getting your annual well-woman exam since hitting adulthood, you've almost certainly had the importance of breast cancer screening tucked in the back of your mind for a good while. But since guidelines are ever-changing, you may be confused about when is the right time to move beyond self-exams and go for your first mammogram to catch any existing symptoms as early as possible.
A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray performed by radiologists to look for changes and abnormalities in breast tissue. Screening mammograms take pictures of each breast from two different angles. This type of imaging is performed to look for signs of breast cancer in women who don't have any breast symptoms or problems. According to the American Cancer Society, if a woman does present breast cancer symptoms or a change is seen on a screening mammogram, doctors will likely recommend a diagnostic mammogram, which may include extra views or images of the breast that aren't part of screening mammograms. These types of mammograms are also used with women who have previously been treated for breast cancer.
Per ACS guidelines, women should be given the option to start screening for breast cancer from ages 40-44. From there, they should make sure to get an annual mammogram every year from ages 45-54. From age 55, women can switch to getting mammograms every two years or continue to do so every year. General breast cancer screening should continue as long as a woman remains in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.
Even if they're not not close to age 40, it's important for all adult women to know how their breasts normally look and feel. All women should know how to perform self-exams and be familiar with the benefits and risks related to breast cancer screening, and they should report any breast changes to a healthcare provider right away.
Finally, although it's a small percentage, some women should even be screened with MRIs along with mammograms because of their family history or certain genetic factors. As always, talk to your doctor about your risk for breast cancer to determine the best screening plan for you.