As a woman, taking care of oneself should always be a top priority. And a crucial aspect that you should never overlook is your breast health. Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer affecting women globally. Hence, early detection is key to successful treatment.
Regular mammogram checks are a vital part of breast cancer screening, detecting diseases early when it is most treatable. Find out the importance of regular mammogram checks and why they should be part of every Singaporean women’s health routine.
Knowing Your Risk for Breast Cancer
Consider the following factors to determine your risk of developing breast cancer.
Firstly, your age is a significant risk factor – as you get older, the risk for breast cancer also increases. Most cases occur in women over 50, but breast cancer can also occur in younger women.
Family history is another important risk factor. Women with a first-degree relative (like a mother or sister) who has had breast cancer are at a higher risk of developing this cancer. The risk increases if this relative is diagnosed at a young age or if numerous relatives have breast cancer.
Your risk of developing breast cancer increases if you have taken hormone replacement therapy for more than five (5) years after menopause. Also, previous breast biopsies that have shown abnormal results and some specific types of radiotherapy for lymphoma put you at a higher risk.
It is crucial to consult a women’s clinic to determine your individual risk. They are the only ones who can evaluate your medical history, family history, and other risk factors and give personalised recommendations for breast cancer screening (mammogram) and prevention.
Remember that while certain risk factors cannot be changed (like age and family history), you can take some steps to reduce your overall risk (e.g., maintaining a healthy lifestyle and getting regular mammogram checks).
Screening Mammogram vs Diagnostic Mammogram
Generally, a mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. Screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms are two different types used for different purposes.
A screening mammogram is routinely used to detect breast cancer in women who show no signs or symptoms of the cancer. It is usually recommended for women who are at risk of developing breast cancer. Screening mammograms are usually done on an annual basis, but the frequency may vary depending on individual risk factors.
On the other hand, a diagnostic mammogram is a more detailed breast x-ray used to assess an abnormality found during a screening mammogram or breast self-examination. It may involve taking more images of the breast from various angles or using special techniques (magnification or compression) to get a closer look at the area of concern.
Who should get mammograms?
The Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends that women aged 50 and above undergo mammogram screening every two (2) years, as breast cancer incidence is highest in this age group. Women who are younger than 50 years old should seek a doctor’s advice on the benefits and limitations of mammography. Those who experience symptoms or changes in one’s breast should immediately visit Singapore women’s clinic to find out if a diagnostic mammogram is needed.
Who are Eligible for a Mammogram Screening
According to the Singapore Cancer Society, you are eligible for a mammogram screening if you:
- Are 50 years and above
- Have a valid Health Assist card
- Have not undergone a mammogram in the last two years
- Have no breast symptoms like breast lumps or nipple discharge
- Have not been breastfeeding for the past six months
- Have not received breast implants
Mammogram screening must be done at least six weeks after COVID-19 booster vaccination to avoid inaccurate results.
Preparing for a Mammogram
If your doctor advised you to undergo either screening or diagnostic mammogram, Here are the steps to take to prepare for it:
- It is best to schedule your appointment for the week after your period ends (if you menstruate), as breasts may be less tender at this time. Avoid scheduling during your period or when your breasts are swollen/tender due to hormonal changes.
- Bring your National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) and the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) card, as they may be needed for registration.
- If you notice changes in your breasts (e.g., lumps, discharge, or skin changes), inform the women’s clinic before your appointment. It will help the radiologist focus on areas of concern during the examination.
- Wear a two-piece outfit on the day of your mammogram. This is because you will need to undress from the waist up for the exam.
- Avoid wearing deodorant, perfume, lotion, or any antiperspirant on your chest or underarms, as the metallic particles in them could be visible on your mammogram and may cause confusion.
- If you are pregnant, inform the radiographer beforehand.
- Bring previous mammogram images to help the radiologist compare and detect changes or abnormalities in your breast tissue.
- Mammograms can be uncomfortable, but the discomfort is usually brief. If you experience severe pain during the examination, inform the radiographer immediately.
Strictly follow the mentioned tips to ensure a smooth and comfortable mammogram experience.
What to Expect
A healthcare professional will have to conduct a clinical breast examination before you can proceed with your mammogram. After that, you will be ushered into the mammography room, and a female radiographer will place and scan each of your breasts individually between two flat plates (with two views taken – horizontal and diagonal). During the scanning process, your breasts will be compressed for a few seconds. Again, if you experience discomfort or pain, please inform the radiographer right away.
About the Results
The results will be mailed six to eight weeks after the screening date. If the results are normal, you are encouraged to continue conducting breast self-examination monthly and undergo regular mammogram screening once every two years.
However, if your results appear abnormal, you will receive a letter with instructions advising you to book a subsequent appointment at a hospital for further testing. The doctor may suggest a repeat mammogram for multiple views of the breast or an ultrasound scan for a closer view of the breast tissue.
Understanding the Risks and Limitations of Mammograms
Here are the risks and limitations of mammograms that you need to understand:
- Exposure to low-dose radiation – for most people, the benefits outweigh the risks of this amount of radiation.
- False positive results – if something unexpected is detected, you may need further tests. But most findings detected on mammograms turn out to be non-cancerous (benign). This leads to unnecessary anxiety and additional testing.
- Some cancers undetected – screening mammograms cannot detect all cancers, such as inflammatory cancer, which do not form a distinct lump. It may be too small or is located in an area (such as the armpit) that is challenging for mammograms to see.
Other Tests Conducted
Here is a list of breast examinations you should know, so you are aware of the other tests that your doctor may require you:
- Breast self-examination – self-examination of your own breasts by feeling for lumps or abnormalities in the breast tissue. It is typically conducted every month.
- Clinical breast examination – this is still a physical examination of your breast tissue but is conducted by a breast specialist. This is usually done before you undergo a mammogram.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – a type of imaging test that uses magnets and radio waves to create detailed images of the breast tissue. It may be recommended for women who have a high risk of breast cancer or who have dense breast tissue that is difficult to image with a mammogram.
- Ultrasound – another type of imaging test that uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the breast tissue. Ultrasounds may be used to supplement mammograms or for women with dense breast tissue.
It is important for women like you to discuss your individual risk factors and other concerns with your doctor so that you will get the best approach possible for your breast health.
Thermograms and Nipple Aspirators are NOT a Substitute
Thermograms produce an image showing the heat and blood flow patterns near the body’s surface. There is no evidence that thermograms can replace mammograms and that thermography can detect breast cancer years before a mammogram can detect it.
Nipple aspirate, on the other hand, is a test wherein a breast pump is used to collect fluid from your nipple to screen for abnormal and potentially cancerous cells. Again, no evidence says nipple aspirate tests, when used solely, are an effective screening tool for any medical condition, let alone breast cancer or any breast disease.
In addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and doing monthly breast self-examination, getting regular mammogram checks from a recommended women’s clinic in Singapore significantly reduces your risk of developing breast cancer. This makes them a vital component of breast health for women in Singapore and around the world.
Make regular mammogram checks a priority. And if you are looking for a trusted women’s clinic to start with your breast health awareness, contact us today for an inquiry or appointment.