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Breast screening helps save lives

Screening saves lives. Many studies have shown that regular mammograms for women aged 50-69 reduce deaths from breast cancer by up to a third.

Close to 63 percent of Ontario women are being screened for mammograms every two years, but we need to do better.

In an interview with Dr. Verna Mai, director of screening at Cancer Care Ontario, we discuss some common reasons why women don’t get screened and explain why they should.

•Many women feel healthy and don’t think they need a mammogram. Should they get screened?

The best time to go for breast screening is when you feel fine and you do not have any breast problems. Going for regular mammography can help find small breast cancers years before you would notice any signs or symptoms.

When breast cancer is caught early, the rates of successful treatment are much higher.

•What if a woman’s doctor hasn’t suggested it?

Women aged 50-69 can make an appointment at their local Ontario Breast Screening Program (OBSP) site without a doctor’s referral. If a woman has questions about the benefits of mammography, she should talk to her doctor.

•Do most of the women who develop breast cancer have a family history of the disease?

No. Having a family history of breast cancer (a mother, sister, or daughter who has had breast cancer) is a risk factor, but only 11 percent of women who get breast cancer have a strong family history of the disease.

We know mammography works and is the most effective tool for detecting breast cancer early in most women, but in order to save more lives from this disease, more women need to get screened.

•Is there anything women can do to make their mammograms more comfortable?

When you have a mammogram, you will feel some pressure on your breast. It feels similar to a tight blood pressure cuff. A few women experience some pain, but it lasts only a few seconds.

If a woman feels pain during the screening, she should tell the technologist (who may be able to adjust the pressure). The two of you can work together so you are as comfortable as possible.

You also may want to consider that many women’s breasts are tender the week before and after their period, so booking your mammogram for a time when your breasts are not so tender could help.

Some women take a mild pain relief pill, such as the kind you would take for a headache, about an hour before the appointment, but you should only do this if it will not affect any other medicines or any health concerns you may have (there even has been some suggestions by other experts that having less caffeine for two weeks before the appointment can help reduce tenderness).

•What else should women know about breast screening?

Women should be familiar with how their breasts look and feel. If you notice any changes, such as a lump or dimpling, changes in your nipple, or fluid leaking from your nipple, skin changes or redness that doesn’t go away, or any other changes, talk to your doctor.

Keep in mind that most changes are not cancerous, but should be checked right away.

As part of a regular health check-up, women should have a physical breast exam by a doctor or nurse and, if you are 50 or older, have regular mammograms at the Ontario Breast Screening Program.

•Should women be getting screened for other cancers?

All women who have ever had any sexual contact need to have regular Pap tests to find cell changes in the cervix early—before they become cancer. With regular Pap tests and the HPV vaccine, it is possible to prevent cervical cancer.

Both men and women aged 50 and over should be screened every two years for colorectal cancer using a Fecal Occult Blood Test, or FOBT.

People at increased risk for colorectal cancer (i.e., with a parent, sibling, or child with colorectal cancer) should be screened for colorectal cancer by colonoscopy starting at age 50 or 10 years earlier than the relative’s age at diagnosis, whichever comes first .

Make sure to talk to your doctor to determine if you are at increased risk for any of these diseases.

For more information on breast, cervical, and colorectal screening, visit

To book an appointment at the Ontario Breast Screening Program site nearest you, call 1-800-668-9304.

Cancer Care Ontario continually improves cancer services so that fewer people get cancer and patients receive better care.

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