To Mammography or Not

The following guest post comes to us via Cynthia.

questionOctober is probably one of the best examples of a public awareness campaign catching on and sticking. Maybe you already knew, thanks to the ubiquitous pink ribbons you see all around you this month, but October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to encourage people to receive screening for the most common cancer among American women. The movement to promote breast cancer awareness has become pervasive. But for me, breast cancer is more than just a campaign — it is a disease that has become a part of my family history. And it has become personal, with numerous friends diagnosed and getting treatment, some of them before they reached the age of 35.


Contradictions regarding mammography exist within the medical community. Where did all of this put me?


When I turned 30, I talked to my doctor about my family history and the concerns I had about breast cancer. Although most health experts don’t recommend a mammography until a woman is in her 40s or 50s, she provided me with a referral to get a mammogram so that we had a baseline image for future comparison. I was anxious while I sat in the waiting room at the imaging center, but I also felt like I was being responsible and proactive when it came to my health. The mammogram was normal and it was put into my file. It wouldn’t be looked at again until I was 40, when my ob/gyn recommended that I get my next mammogram.

This October isn’t just Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also the month I turned 40. I am preparing for my next mammogram, but I have questions for my doctor before I make the appointment. Is it really necessary? Can I wait to get my next mammogram? I have a lot of questions, because there was conflicting information handed down earlier this year from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 19: Prostate Exams for Cancer Screening

prostateWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.

It’s Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. This type of cancer strikes 1 out of 5 Americans with prostates. There are two common screening tests for it — and Planned Parenthood Arizona offers both of them. The first test, and the subject of this post, is the prostate exam. The second is the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test — which has both benefits and drawbacks, and which will be the subject of a future post.

Here’s the good news/bad news: Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of men’s cancer deaths, but it also has very high survival rates when detected and treated early — a five-year survival rate of almost 100 percent.

What’s a prostate?

A normal prostate is a one-ounce, walnut-sized gland that is part of the male reproductive system. It manufactures fluid that is mixed with sperm to create semen, which is the product of ejaculation. However, the gland can often enlarge, especially later in life. Since the prostate is nestled right in there with the bladder and the urethra, when it grows in size it can block the flow of urine (it can also cause sexual problems). An enlarged prostate, also called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), can mimic the symptoms of prostate cancer — but it’s not cancer. It may be treated surgically, however.

Am I at risk for prostate cancer?

While prostate cancer is common, there are a few factors that can increase your risk even more. These include:

  • age (two-thirds of prostate cancers occur in people 65 years of age or older)
  • genetics (a family history of prostate cancer — especially if a father or brother developed prostate cancer before the age of 65)
  • being of African-American descent (prostate cancer is more common in African Americans than in Americans of other races) Continue reading

How Often Do I Need a Pap Test?

Almost 80 years ago, Dr. George Papanicolaou developed a simple test, the Pap test (also called the Pap smear), done in a doctor’s office to check for cervical cancer. During a pelvic exam, a doctor swabs a small sample of cervical tissue and looks for abnormal cells. If these precancerous cells are detected, it will lead to more tests or other more invasive treatments such as a colposcopy (in which actual tissue may be removed). In the 1930s, when Papanicolaou was developing his test, cervical cancer was more lethal than breast cancer. But since the development of this test, the number of women dying from cervical cancer has dropped dramatically. In 2009, of the 4,000 women in the United States who died of cervical cancer, most had never been screened or had not been screened in the 10 years before their diagnosis.


This year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended less frequent Pap testing.


Cervical cancer is most common in women between ages 35 and 55, and usually develops from a human papillomavirus or HPV infection. Not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer, and it can take decades for a persistent infection with a high-risk type of HPV to become cancer. High-risk HPV types are sexually transmitted and can lead to cervical cancer and also anal, penile, and oral cancers.

There are two types of screening: Pap tests and HPV tests. While they both require a pelvic exam in which cells are taken from the cervix, Pap tests look for abnormal or precancerous cells, and HPV tests look for DNA or RNA from high-risk HPV types in cervical cells. Both tests are used to try to catch cervical cancer in its earliest stages so that it can be successfully treated. Continue reading