group of women at a breast cancer awareness run

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As nature displays its vibrant fall colors, we don equally vibrant pink attire and ribbons to honor our friends and loved ones who have been affected by breast cancer. This month is filled with breast cancer fundraisers and events. Women are reminded of the importance of breast exams and mammograms—of catching the cancer early, so it has a better chance of being treated successfully. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, “When breast cancer is detected early (localized stage), the 5-year survival rate is 98%.” This is what motivates us and gives us hope.

The average American woman over 40 (myself included) knows what she should be doing when it comes to early breast cancer detection. We know about self-breast exams, clinical breast exams and regular mammograms. Clearly, most of us are acting on this advice and doing what it takes to screen for breast cancer. The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2010, 67% of women over the age of 40 had a mammogram within the past two years. And to that we say, “Way to go!”

But if you are one of the women out there who has never had a mammogram and is reluctant, it’s time to have a conversation about mammograms. It’s understandable that your mind can be filled with doubt, worry and stress over getting a mammogram. It can be a scary process, and you may have questions. Does it hurt? Is it safe? What if they find something? How will I cope? The anxiety can be overwhelming.

Address your fears by talking to your doctor about mammograms. You will find that you are not the only one who has questions.

Here are some common questions/concerns about mammograms, and answers from experts:

Does a mammogram hurt?

The process can be uncomfortable and maybe even a little painful. The Department of Human Health and Service, Office on Women’s Health explains the process: “You will feel pressure on your breast for a few seconds. It may cause you some discomfort; you might feel squeezed or pinched. This feeling only lasts for a few seconds, and the flatter your breast, the better the picture. . . . A screening mammogram takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.” Ultimately, it may be a bit of an unpleasant experience, but the whole process doesn’t take very long.

Will I be exposed to dangerous radiation?

Yes, mammograms do carry with them a small risk of radiation. The debate continues about how much radiation is safe and whether or not it is worth the radiation exposure to “possibly” catch a tumor in the breast. The National Cancer Institute explains, “The risk of harm from this radiation exposure is extremely low, but repeated x-rays have the potential to cause cancer. The benefits of mammography, however, nearly always outweigh the potential harm from the radiation exposure. Nevertheless, women should talk with their health care providers about the need for each x-ray.”

What if the mammogram finds something?

It is always a possibility that the mammogram may catch something suspicious or dangerous. Sometimes you have to return for additional testing—and that’s scary and stressful. Marisa Weiss, M.D., president and founder of Breastcancer.org, agrees, “There’s no doubt that getting a mammogram is anxiety-provoking for any woman. Getting called back to check out an ‘abnormal’ finding is worse. With breast cancer being one of women’s top anxieties, it doesn’t take much to trigger a cascade of negative reactions.” You may have anxiety over a mammogram, but you are not the only one. So, don’t let that stop you. In the long run, it would be much worst to postpone getting a mammogram and miss catching a tumor until it has spread.

If you want to put things into true perspective, talk to those who have been affected by breast cancer. It only takes one story about one woman whose breast cancer was caught by her very first mammogram and was caught early enough to be treatable, and you will see the urgency and importance of regular breast exams. When you see pink ribbons everywhere this month, honor everyone who has been affected by breast cancer, and let the ribbons serve as your yearly reminder to visit your doctor and get screened.  Your health is worth it!