At one time breast cancer could only be diagnosed when a tumor was big enough to see or feel. Now it can be recognized -- and cured -- far earlier, often before any symptoms have even appeared.  Mammography is a huge part of the early detection strategy for women over 40 or and women under 40 who have high risk factors for cancer.  What is mammography?

Mammography is a low-dose x-ray of the breasts to find changes that may occur. It is the most common imaging technique. Mammography can detect cancer or other problems before a lump becomes large enough to be felt, as well as assist in the diagnosis of other breast problems. However, a biopsy is required to confirm the presence of cancer.

Since there is controversy among cancer organizations regarding when to begin having mammograms, as well as how often, talk with your physician about a mammography schedule that is appropriate for you based on your overall health and medical history, risk factors, and personal opinion or preference.

According to the National Cancer Institute, women in their 40's and older should begin having a screening mammogram on a regular basis, every one to two years. But, the American Cancer Society recommends that by age 40, women should have a screening mammogram every year. (A diagnostic mammogram may be required when a questionable area is found during a screening mammogram.)

Both organizations suggest that women who may be at increased risk for breast cancer should talk with their physicians about whether to begin having mammograms at an earlier age.  Many oncologists recommend that women with a family history of early breast cancer start recieving mammograms at age 30.

Last Medical Review: August 2010