ALBANY, N.Y. (WTEN) – October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it comes as studies show mammogram rates have dropped by as much as 40% over the pandemic. Unfortunately, this can lead to cancer being diagnosed at later stages when treatment is less successful.  

“The beauty of mammogram is you can catch a breast cancer when it’s at early stage. If you’re an early stage breast cancer, you have an excellent prognosis,” said

Dr. Lynn Choi, a breast surgeon at Albany Medical Center.

She says breast exams, both self and clinical, can be valuable, but they’re not alternatives to mammography.

“The most important thing I say is, ‘be aware of your breasts, have a good clinical exam at least once a year, and figure out when you should have imaging,’” she said. 

Dr. Choi says all women should start getting mammograms at age 40. But if you have personal or family history that puts you at higher risk, imaging should start as early as 25. That includes those with the breast cancer genes known as BRCA.  

“There are two BRCA genes: BRCA 1, BRCA 2, but if you put them together, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer varies from 60% to 80%,” she said. 

That’s far above the average woman’s lifetime risk of 12%. Those women have two options: screenings every 6 months for early detection or surgery to remove the breasts. 

“Bilateral prophylactic mastectomies; they are something a lot of women know about because of Angelina Jolie,” Dr. Choi. 

She says advances in treatment include less extensive surgery. Lymph nodes are no longer routinely removed from the armpits, preventing complications. 

 “You can have a 30% chance of lymphedema. Lymphedema is permanent swelling of that arm, it can really affect the quality of life,” she said. 

Emerging studies are aimed at treating stage zero breast cancer without surgery.  

 “So that’s cooking right now. So everything’s really to try to do less to still have the same survival benefit,” said Dr. Choi.