How screening mammograms save lives

Posted on 13 October 2016

We are constantly reminded of the importance of early detection in combatting breast cancer. Radiographers explain what you need to know about the potentially life-saving screening mammogram.

‘Mammograms can detect certain breast cancers at an early stage. Early treatment improves the chance of survival and breast conservation,’ says Lameez Latief, head radiographer at Morton & Partners based at Mediclinic Cape Town.

Results from many decades of research show that women who have regular mammograms are:

  • more likely to have breast cancer detected early
  • less likely to need aggressive treatment
  • have a lower mortality rate from breast cancer.

In perfect conditions, where dense breast tissue is not obscuring abnormalities, mammograms can be up to 100% accurate, say PinkDrive mammographers Thulisile Mbeje and Noxolo Lubisi.

When to go for a screening mammogram

The American Cancer Society recommends these cancer screening guidelines for most adults.

  • Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms (x-rays of the breast) if they wish to do so.
  • Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years, or can continue yearly screening.
  • Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
  • All women should be familiar with the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked to breast cancer screening. They also should know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes to a health care provider right away.

Diagnostic mammography is performed when a woman, no matter her age, notices a change in her breasts such as a breast lump, a lump in her armpit, a change in the appearance of the breast skin or nipple.

How to arrange an appointment

There are two quick ways to arrange a private mammogram: Visit your GP and ask for a referral to a radiologist that specialises in mammography or call the radiologist’s reception directly and book an appointment.

‘Medical aid patients will need to have a request form completed by their GP. Most medical aids will not pay for a mammogram if a request form has not been completed,’ adds Lameez. Women are also advised to check with their medical aids whether they cover screening mammograms, and what percentage is covered.

For women who don’t have medical aid, the PinkDrive offers an open-door, ‘doctor-on-wheels’ policy. PinkDrive offers these services free to all medically uninsured people in South Africa.

What to expect

Making that first call to the doctor or radiologist’s office may make one feel apprehensive, but all staff are trained to help the patient feel at ease.

Lameez explains, ‘Mammograms are very personal examinations and are conducted by qualified and highly trained mammographers. The mammographer will ensure that each mammogram is performed professionally and will make every attempt to make the procedure as pleasant as possible.’

Mammograms are generally a painless procedure, although patients may experience pressure and mild discomfort when the breasts are compressed.

Patients can prepare themselves for the half-hour exam by not wearing deodorant, talcum powder, perfume or any moisturising lotion, as these can appear as white spots on the X-ray.

Safety concerns

Mammograms are X-rays of the breast. Some women may be concerned that the screening itself increases breast cancer risk, but radiographers say this is not the case.

‘It would take a lot of radiation exposure to increase someone’s cancer risk,’ Thulisile explains. According to the American Cancer Society, the dose required for a mammogram is very small and the risk of harm is minimal.

‘However, mammograms are not suitable for patients who are either pregnant or breastfeeding, unless advised by a referring doctor,’ Lameez cautions.

 Showing support

‘Education and awareness regarding breast cancer, such as PinkDrive initiatives, breast imaging and the advantages of early detection play an integral role in saving lives,’ says Lameez.

If you would like to get involved in widening access to mammography, you can show support by:

  • Running, walking or swimming for PinkDrive, which is present at major sporting events.
  • Donating as little as R20 to the cause.
  • Booking PinkDrive screenings for a corporate wellness day, where each mammogram will cover five mammograms for uninsured women.

You can visit PinkDrive to view events at

Published in Cancer

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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