October 19, 2022

UAB Radiology and OB/GYN collaborate to prioritize mammograms and breast health

Written by Amanda Dunn and Shawna Masters

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each year, more than 40,000 women die from breast cancer. It is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 35-60. However, annual mammography can reduce this risk. In fact, a mammogram is the only test scientifically proven to reduce breast cancer deaths.

Radiology plays an important role across numerous specialties in health care, but mammography is a critical procedure for detecting breast cancer. A mammogram can detect most cancers when they are small, before they can be felt. A smaller, earlier diagnosis may require less aggressive treatment and lead to a reduced risk of death.

Radiologists work closely with obstetrics and gynecology providers, and together, the UAB Departments of Radiology and Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) are encouraging women to prioritize their breast health and awareness, not only this month, but year-round.

We talked with Stefanie Zalasin, M.D., M.S, assistant professor in the Breast Imaging Section, and Todd Jenkins, M.D., MSHA, FACOG, professor and director of the Division of Women’s Reproductive Healthcare, to understand more about mammograms, what patients can expect, the importance of breast cancer awareness, and more.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a special, low-dose X-ray that images the breasts to check for cancer. A standard screening mammogram is comprised of two views of each breast. To get an optimal image, the breast is placed in compression for a few seconds while the image is obtained. The compression produces a sharper image that spreads out overlapping tissue and decreases the amount of radiation used. Screening mammography is by far the most effective test to detect signs of breast cancer.

What can a patient expect from the procedure?

When a patient is referred for a mammogram at UAB, the request goes to UAB Radiology’s access center. The access center will call the patient, ask screening questions, make an appointment, and can usually schedule a screening mammogram within two days.

“On the day of the mammogram, the patient will be asked to not wear deodorant, lotion, or powder, as this can show up as abnormal findings on the image,” says Zalasin. “After the patient checks in, she will fill out her history questionnaire before being taken to a changing room and given a gown. When the patient enters the mammography room, she will stand in front of the machine and the breast will be placed on the plate. A second plate will compress the breast from above and an image will be taken. The compression releases immediately after the X-ray exposure. Then the breast will be imaged from the side, and the process will be repeated for the other breast.” 

While images are taken, the patient is asked to hold her breath and remain still to avoid blurred images. Each image only takes a few seconds, and the patient is only in the mammography room for approximately 10 minutes. The entire process typically takes 30-45 minutes.

If any further imaging is needed, Radiology contacts the patient to make additional appointments. 

What are common misconceptions about mammograms?

Zalasin says that one common misconception is that a patient does not need a mammogram if they have no family history of breast cancer. This is false. 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history at all. 

“Another common misconception is that patients don’t need mammograms annually. This is also false,” says Zalasin. “It is not only important to have annual mammograms, but it is also important that women continue to return each year. The incidence of breast cancer continues to rise with age, making annual mammography extremely important.”

It is important to consult your health care provider about frequency.

Stefanie Woodard, D.O., assistant program director for the UAB Diagnostic Radiology Residency Program and associate professor in the Breast Imaging Section, was recently interviewed by CBS42 to debunk myths surrounding mammograms.

Why UAB?

The Department of OB/GYN is renowned for its commitment to patient care, and providers encourage patients to stay aware of their bodies and health in all areas, including breast health. At UAB, our OB/GYN providers are in close contact with other departments, including the Department of Radiology, allowing patients to be connected quickly to other specialists. This is key for patients with breast cancer concerns.

When it comes to breast imaging, radiologists at UAB have additional training and specialize in reading breast images.

“It is not only important where you get your mammogram, but it is just as important who reads your mammogram” says Zalasin. “The Department of Radiology uses state of the art technology, including 2D and 3D mammography, to image and read the mammograms. The department is also an American College of Radiology (ACR) accredited Breast Imaging Center of Excellence.”

Additionally, UAB’s radiologists are nationally recognized leaders in research and regularly publish new findings. This ensures that patients are seen by experts who are up-to-date on the newest information and procedures. 

“Our radiologists at UAB take a lot of pride in what they do,” says Jenkins. “It is a pleasure to work with them and know our patients are receiving the best care with them. They work hard, do right, and own it.”

What can patients do?

Experts recommend women schedule regular visits to their OB/GYN provider.

“Premenopausal breast cancer is much more worrisome than postmenopausal, as it is not as common,” says Jenkins. “The average age for a woman to be diagnosed with breast cancer is between 55 and 60, so it is important to start considering regular mammograms at age 40.”

According to Zalasin, screening mammography has been shown to save the most lives when performed annually.

“Skipping a year of mammography leads to breast cancers being found at a later stage, often requiring more extensive treatment,” says Zalasin.

While mammography picks up the most cases of breast cancer, the second most common way a patient becomes aware of breast cancer is by noticing a lump or mass.

“Breast awareness is so important,” says Jenkins. “Women should take action if something seems abnormal.”

OB/GYN providers and breast imaging radiologists at UAB can advise patients on their next or first mammogram. Schedule an appointment with UAB Medicine to get started.

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB is Alabama’s only comprehensive cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute. The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center is a leader in conducting groundbreaking research, reducing cancer disparities, and providing world-class patient care.

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