There’s no easy answer: It depends on your personal risk factors.
If you’re someone who worries about dealing with breast cancer at some point in your life, one of the best things you can do is begin breast cancer screening—including mammograms—at the recommended age. Catching breast cancer early tends to improve your prognosis, since early cancers that have not spread to other parts of the body are more easily curable.
“Any woman who has a question about when to start screening for breast cancer should meet with their physician or healthcare provider and have a discussion about what's best for them,” says Brenda Panzera, MD, oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital.
The exact age you should begin breast cancer screening depends on your own personal risk factors. Learn more about what it means to be average risk, moderate risk, and high risk for breast cancer.
Mammograms for an Average-Risk Individual
“An average-risk woman is an individual who has no family history or personal history of breast cancer, is not a breast cancer gene carrier, and has not previously had radiation to the chest,” says Dr. Panzera.
Different organizations have slightly different recommendations, but the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends getting a mammogram every two years for women between the ages of 50 and 74—but potentially as early as 40. “Healthcare professionals will usually speak with women about the pros and cons of screening beginning at that age,” says Dr. Panzera.
Mammograms for a Moderate-Risk Individual
“A moderate-risk individual is an individual who has not previously had breast cancer, but has a family member, particularly a first-degree family member, who has had breast cancer, but does not carry one of the known breast cancer genes,” says Dr. Panzera.
Although considered at a higher risk of breast cancer than those of average risk, a moderate-risk individual has the same recommendations—but they may benefit from starting at age 40, according to the USPSTF. The American Cancer Society (ACS) also recommends that women in this group should get mammograms every year.
Regardless, when moderate-risk individuals should start mammograms “needs to be very carefully individualized for each person,” says Dr. Panzera.
Mammograms for a High-Risk Individual
“A high-risk individual is an individual who has previously had breast cancer themselves, or who has a first-degree family member with breast cancer who is a known gene carrier, but that person has not been tested for the gene,” says Dr. Panzera. Women who are a known gene carrier are also considered high risk.
High-risk individuals should start getting breast cancer screenings and mammograms beginning at age 30, according to ACS. However, this should also be carefully discussed with a healthcare provider to consider individual circumstances.
Breast cancer screenings have so many benefits—whether it’s alleviating anxiety by assuring you do not have breast cancer, or it’s helping diagnose breast cancer early so you can begin breast cancer treatment if necessary.
Dr. Panzera is a clinical instructor in hematology and oncology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and attending physician at Mount Sinai and Lenox Hill Hospitals.
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Any woman who has a question about when to start screening
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for breast cancer should meet with their physician or healthcare provider
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and have a discussion about what's best for them.
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An average-risk woman is an individual who has
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no family history or personal history of breast cancer,
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is not a breast cancer gene carrier,
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and has not previously had radiation to the chest.
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In terms of when we recommend that women
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begin breast cancer screening, between the ages of 40 and 49.
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Healthcare professionals will usually speak with women
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about the pros and cons of screening beginning at that age.
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A moderate-risk individual is an individual
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who has not previously had breast cancer,
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but has a family member, particularly a first-degree family member,
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who has had breast cancer, but does not carry
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one of the known breast cancer genes.
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The recommendations for screening for a moderate-risk individual
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are the same as an average-risk individual,
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and that needs to be very carefully individualized for each person.
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A high-risk individual is an individual who has previously
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had breast cancer themselves,
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or who has a first-degree family member
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with breast cancer who is a known gene carrier,
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but that person has not been tested for the gene,
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or if an individual is a known breast cancer gene carrier.
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For women who are anxious about having a mammogram,
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I think it's important to remember that once you've had
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that first mammogram, the anxiety will lessen
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with subsequent mammograms, and the benefit
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of having the mammogram far outweighs the risk,
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and your healthcare providers are here to help guide you
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through the process of doing the next steps,
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getting the diagnosis, having the appropriate treatment,
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and then being followed, so that you can get to the other side
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and live a full life, hopefully without cancer.
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Breast cancer screening guidelines for women. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on January 25, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/pdf/breastcancerscreeningguidelines.pdf.)
Mammogram basics. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on January 25, 2020 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection/mammograms/mammogram-basics.html.)
What is a breast cancer screening? Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018. (Accessed on January 25, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/screening.htm.)