My close childhood friend Kelly died from breast cancer when she was only 32 years old. This inspired me to choose a research position at Berkeley Lab to help develop new breast-imaging scanners to improve early detection. Given my expertise in this field, my friends come to me with their confusion and ask, “At what age and how frequently should I get a mammogram?”
There has been a lot of debate surrounding mammography screening since 2009 when the United States Preventive Services Task Force revised the guidelines for average-risked women, limiting routine screening to biennial mammography for women 50 to 74 years of age.
The researchers recommended increasing the screening age in part because of the harmful anxiety caused by false-positive results, which are more common in younger women. The American Cancer Society recently released a new set of guidelines that recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 45, but they also considered the pain, anxiety and other potential side effects of mammography.
A recent article published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology describes a successful intervention to reduce this anxiety. The authors organized interactive one-hour educational sessions on mammography, which were led by a trained breast radiologist.
Before the lecture, a questionnaire was administered to the participants to identify their anxiety and previous mammography experience — 117 responded. Those respondents who reported having anxiety about mammography screening indicated “unknown results” and “anticipation of pain” as the primary sources of their anxiety.
A follow-up questionnaire measured the effectiveness of the informational sessions. Virtually all participants were able to correctly answer key facts that were covered in the lecture, such as recognizing that it is important to have your prior mammogram available to the radiologist for comparison.
The journal article concludes:
Attendees of these sessions reported high levels of satisfaction in their participation, with a strongly favorable impact on increased knowledge and decreased anxiety (“harm”). Education can enable women to share in informed decision-making regarding if, when, and how often to attend screening mammography. Attendees also reported encouragement to attend screening mammography.
The authors hope to encourage other radiologists to provide similar proactive, public outreach education.
Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor.
Previously: Don’t hide from breast cancer — facing it early is key, Ask Stanford Med: Radiologist responds to your questions about breast cancer screening, Screening could slash number of breast cancer cases, and The squeeze: Compression during mammography important for accurate breast cancer detection
Photograph by Rhoda Baer