Breast Cancer Awareness for Pregnant, Nursing Women

Are mammograms safe for all women? And why are doctors dismissing breast self-exams?

Many women who are pregnant or nursing fear the radiation from mammograms could pose a threat to the developing fetus or potentially contaminate their breast milk.

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But the American Cancer Society (ACS) recently announced that the alternative – low-tech breast self-exams – do little to reduce a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer.

These conflicting messages surrounding breast cancer screening have many pregnant and nursing women scratching their heads.

So what are moms to do?

“First of all, it is safe for pregnant women to have mammograms,” says Debbie Saslow, Ph.D., director of breast and gynecological cancer at the American Cancer Society. “The radiation is minimal and directed at the breast, not the belly. There is no evidence to suggest that mammograms pose a danger to a developing fetus.”

As for nursing mothers, Saslow says very few of these women need to worry about mammograms. Rather, women between the ages of 20 and 39 should be given a clinical breast exam (which does not include a mammogram) by their physician once every three years, according to the ACS. Annual mammograms are recommended for women ages 40 and older and for those with a higher-than-average risk for breast cancer – those who have already had the disease or who have a family history of it.

And although the ACS’s most recent guidelines list breast self-exams as optional, Saslow encourages women to tell their physicians immediately about any breast change, including puckering or dimpling in the skin. “We want women to be aware of what their breasts normally feel like and look like,” says Saslow, “and to bring any change to the attention of their doctor right away.”