When former TV host Ananda Lewis announced earlier this month that she was battling stage 3 breast cancer, she urged other women to get screened for the disease. She lamented the fact she too had been encouraged to get yearly mammograms, but opted not to due to her worries that it was actually the radiation exposure that occurs during screenings that causes cancer. She believes now that if she had started getting screened a lot earlier, knowing her family history of breast cancer, things would have played out differently.
“If I had done the mammograms from the time they were recommended when I turned 40, they would have caught the tumor in my breast years before I caught it through my own breast exam, self-exam and thermography,” she said. “They would have caught it at a place where it was more manageable, where the treatment of it would have been a little easier. It’s never easy, but I use that word in comparison to what I’m going through now.”
We, like Lewis, often hear about the necessity of going in for mammograms yearly around the age of 40, but that doesn’t mean everyone is actually doing it. It also doesn’t mean that people are comfortable to. They may believe that self screening at home is good enough. It’s not.
With that in mind, we reached out to Janna Andrews, MD. She is the founder of Kicked It in Heels, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to survivors of breast cancer. In addition to that, Dr. Andrews specializes in radiation oncology and works with Northwell Health in New York. We asked her to set the record straight about how safe mammograms are, when we need to go about getting them done, and what Black women, more likely to die from the disease due to a myriad of reasons, can do in terms of preventative measures to decrease the likelihood of a breast cancer diagnosis. Take a look at what she had to say.
MadameNoire: When do most women need to start going in for mammograms?
Dr. Janna Andrews: Per the American Cancer Society, most women or women with an average risk of breast cancer should start getting mammograms between 40-44 years old. A woman is considered to be above average risk if she has a personal history of breast cancer, genetic mutations associated with breast cancer, or a strong family history of breast cancer.
If you have a family history of cancers, breast cancer included, when should you be proactive about getting a mammogram?
If you have a family history of breast cancer you should consult with your physician about whether it may be beneficial to start screening earlier. Depending on the age of your relative’s diagnosis, your physician may recommend that you start screening at a younger age.
Can they be dangerous? A public figure, Ananda Lewis, who ended up with stage 3 breast cancer, said she avoided getting screenings because of radiation exposure, which she thought would cause cancer.
Mammograms are low dose X-rays of the breast. The risk of harm from the radiation exposure of a mammogram is usually very low. But for any woman that has concerns about the potential exposure from a mammogram, she should consult with her physician. Ultimately, it is felt that the very low exposure of radiation from mammography is relatively small when compared to the benefit of diagnosing breast cancer early.
When doing breast checks at home, what differentiates the feeling of something abnormal that should be checked out from, say, hard lumps and nodules that are benign?
Self breast exams are no longer recommended. Research has not shown a clear benefit to clinical breast exams or self breast exams. That being said, every woman should ‘know’ their body and be knowledgeable about what is normal for them. If anything new appears or ‘feels’ abnormal, women should consult with their physicians.
Black women, unfortunately, are more likely to die from breast cancer than our white counterparts from this form of cancer. That can have a lot to do with racial disparities, but what would you tell us that we have control of that we need to be serious about to help lower the likelihood of being diagnosed with it?
There are some modifiable risk factors that women of color should be aware of that could help reduce their risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. 1) Women should limit alcohol consumption, as the risk of breast cancer increases with more alcohol consumption. 2) Exercise decreases your risk of developing breast cancer, as women that are more sedentary have a higher risk. 3) Maintain a healthy weight. Women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. 4) Smoking has been associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer. 5) We also know that hormone replacement therapy with combined estrogen and progesterone may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.