• Mayo Clinic Minute: What women need to know about mammograms

When should women start getting mammograms to screen for breast cancer? With changing guidelines, it may be difficult to determine the best plan of action. Dr. Amy Degnim, a Mayo Clinic surgeon, says women should know the risks and benefits of mammography, as well as their own risk of breast cancer. That information can help women decide when to start screening and if they'd benefit from additional screening technologies.

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"A mammogram is an X-ray investigation of the breast to look for a cancer that's hiding under the skin," Dr. Degnim says.

Who should get a mammogram and when?

"There's been a lot of controversy in the last 10 years about whether age 40 is the right age to start screening, and whether mammograms should be done every year or every other year," Dr. Degnim says.

Mammograms have been proven to save lives by detecting breast cancer early — while it's still curable. But the test is not always a perfect fit for everyone.

"A mammogram does not detect 100% of cancers in the breast. It is not able to see every cancer because it depends on being able to find a tumor and its density, compared to the rest of the tissue around it. So for some women who have very dense tissue in their entire breast, there could be a cancer in there that we just cannot see well with a mammogram," Dr. Degnim says.

In that case, or if a woman is at high risk of breast cancer, other screening tools, such as ultrasound, 3D mammograms, MRI or a technology called "molecular breast imaging" may be additional options. Dr. Degnim says women should talk to their health care providers about the screening tools that are right for them.

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