How Can We Get Young Women to Get Annual Mammograms?


One breast cancer survivor shares the experience she had with her daughters in trying to get them to understand the importance of participating in preventive screenings.

Last week, my youngest daughter called. We talked about random things for about 30 minutes and then we landed on the topic of health. I mentioned several medical appointments I’d setup for the new year and she mentioned she’d done the same.

Interested in what medical tests she needed, I questioned her. I knew she’d been having some digestive problems but was surprised when she mentioned an upcoming appointment for a mammogram. At the age of 34, she was the youngest of my four children. Immediately, my hackles went up.

“What’s going on?” I asked. She mentioned that one of her breasts was very tender and itchy. At first, she ignored the symptoms thinking the material of her sweater might be irritating her breast but as symptoms persisted several months, she became concerned.

I was also concerned, especially with my own breast cancer history, but didn’t say anything other than, “I’m proud of you for being proactive. I think you did the right thing.”

Of my four children, three are girls. All are under the age of 40. Since my breast cancer surgery in 2014, I’ve urged each of them to check their breasts regularly. I even gave them printed instructions on performing breast self-exams but have no idea if any of them heeded my advice.

According to the American Cancer Society, women between the ages of 40 and 44 should have a screening mammogram. A screening mammogram is a test performed before any symptoms have been detected. Women between the ages of 45 and 54 should have a mammogram every year, and women 55 and up can have these tests done every two years if they’re healthy. Detecting breast cancer early can lead to a higher rate of survival and often, less aggressive treatment.

Younger women are more prone to have dense breasts. Dense breasts are breasts composed of supportive tissue, milk glands and milk ducts. Breast cancers are difficult to palpate in dense breasts, according to information on the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Dense breast tissue appears white on a mammogram while non-dense breast tissue appears dark and this can cause cancers — which also appear white — to be difficult to read, but there are other tests available such as MRIs and ultrasounds. As women age, their breast tissue tends to become less dense, but this is not true in all cases.

Some young women chose to forego mammograms due to myths associated with the test. They think there’s no need for a mammogram unless there’s a family history or they believe a mammogram will expose them to unnecessary radiation. Some have heard stories from friends or relatives about negative experiences related to the painfulness of the procedure. Those things can be a deterrent to scheduling a test.

So how can we encourage the younger generation to take good care of their breasts? Doctors don’t usually recommend mammograms for women below the age of 40 but that doesn’t mean a woman can’t schedule a test if she feels it necessary.

According to Yale Medicine, “While breast cancer in younger women is rare, it is the most common cancer among women ages 15 to 39. And certain kinds of breast cancer are on the rise among young women.”

Dr. Liva Andrejeva-Wright, a Yale Medicine radiologist, said “While breast cancer is most typically diagnosed in post-menopausal women, this is a condition that can and does happen in young women, too. I have diagnosed women in their 20s with breast cancers.”

That’s a scary thought and it’s one reason I’m an advocate for early screenings. There’s no way to determine who will or won’t get breast cancer, but women with a family history face higher odds.

I’ve tried to talk openly and honestly about breast cancer with my girls. I’ve allowed them to ask questions and they have. When they asked, “Mom, won’t it hurt?” I told them it would, because it does hurt, but I also was quick to share the pain is temporary and if it can help discover a problem, wouldn’t they choose to endure it?

When I was going through surgery and treatment, I not only talked to them about each step of my journey, but I also let them see my wounds. It wasn’t easy to expose them to the traumatic event of losing both breasts, but I wanted them to take cancer seriously. I’ve done my best to encourage them to be proactive but to date, only my youngest has chosen to be tested.

I want to keep my girls safe. That’s a mother’s job. I wouldn’t be able to bear it if one of them came to me in the future and said, “Mom, I’ve got breast cancer.” I’d fall to pieces! So, let them say I’m nagging as I continue to push them to get a screening mammogram. I’d rather nag them into doing it than stand by and wait for something bad to happen.

Hopefully, in the future, medical standards for initial screenings will be lowered in age. I would like to see the age for screening mammograms drop to 25. I’d also like to see advances in technology that would make them less painful and more affordable for all. And while they do have the new 3D mammograms in some areas, those are not readily available for all. Many insurance companies do not cover them.

We must help protect our young women. Prevention should start at home. Mothers should help their daughters learn to take good care of their breasts as soon as they start developing. That should include a healthy diet, wearing well-fitting brassieres and doing self-exams by the time they’re teens.

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