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Catching Breast Cancer Early

There has been lots of controversy in recent years over the best ways to detect breast cancer as soon as possible but, reports The Early Show's Dr. Emily Senay, "The bottom line is mammography is the gold standard in screening for breast cancer."

Senay's advice is particularly timely, because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In 2004, about 40,000 women will die from the disease, and 200,000 will learn they have it.

Again and again, Senay says, studies show that mammograms really do help detect tumors in early stages, when they are more curable. And most doctors believe the tests do reduce the risk of death from breast cancer.

The theory is that, in many cases, mammograms are able to find much smaller tumors much earlier than breast self-exams. So doctors are able to treat them much earlier and more effectively.

Senay suggests women think about when they last had a mammogram, and make an appointment to get one if it's called for.

Senay answered other important questions:

What are some guidelines?

After years of controversy, here is what the American Cancer Society says: Women ages 20 to 39 need a clinical exam by a physician, every three years. Women 40 and older, a yearly clinical exam and mammmogram.

Only 6 percent of women in their 40s are getting that yearly mammogram. Why? Are we not getting the word out enough?

That is part of it. The controversy about mammograms deterred women in their 40s from getting them. For other women, their insurance doesn't cover it and they can't afford it. Some women simply aren't notified by their physician's office that they need to have the test. And a growing problem is there are not enough mammogram providers. Women often have to make appointments for routine mammorgrams six months in advance.

Why is it so important for younger women to start getting regular mammograms before they reach menopause?

It's important for young women to be screened annually because their hormonal activity before menopause can fuel some types of breast cancer and make it grow more quickly.

What about breast self-exams?

Again, there's controversy there. Some studies seem to suggest they're not all they were cracked up to be. However, having said that, what is really important is being familiar with your breast tissue and noting any changes. If you find something that seems different to you or somehow suspicious, get in and get it examined right away.

What if you fall in that high-risk category for breast cancer?

If you fall into a high-risk category because you have a family history or for some other reason, then your regular health care provider needs to monitor you. You may need to start mammograms at a much younger age, and there are other tools (such as ultrasound or MRI) that might be right for you. If you're in that high-risk group, you need someone to work with and stick with.