First Mammogram Screening Saves a Life

Adult female patient talks with nurse

Jennie's story: A life saved by early detection.

In her role as one of our nurse case managers, Jennie Zea helps Blue Cross Vermont members get the care they need, including preventive screenings. Jennie also makes sure she gets preventive screenings for her own personal care. When she turned 40 last August, she had her first routine mammogram screening. Little did she know that initial mammogram would save her life.

I had no concerns and no symptoms. The test was easy and painless, and I went on my way without a second thought,” recalls Jennie. “Much to my surprise, I found out I had breast cancer.”

After learning of the disease, Jennie’s first thought was fear. That didn’t last long. “You never think you’ll find yourself in this position until you do. Once the fear settled, I was determined to do whatever it took to get healthy again, for myself and my family.”

Because her breast cancer was found early, it allowed Jennie time to consider the options for treatment. She decided to get surgical treatment and is doing well now.

Screening Recommendations

Women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram every two years, according to breast cancer screening recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor about when to start screening and how often to get a mammogram, the guidelines say.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) screening recommendations for women with average risk of breast cancer are:

  • Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
  • Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year or choose to continue yearly mammograms.

Women at high risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30, the ACS recommends.  

One of the reasons a woman might decide to start screening early is a family history of breast cancer. About 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, according to the ACS. They result from gene mutations passed from a parent, including the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Jennie’s grandmother died of breast cancer at age 54, but her mother has been healthy, so Jennie says it was not recommended that she start screening before the age of 40. “We were not aware of any gene mutations in the family at the time of my diagnosis,” she says.

As a proponent of preventive screenings, Jennie says “it’s important to me that I practice what I preach.” She got screened as soon as she was eligible, scheduling her first mammogram two days after turning 40. “I’m so relieved that I did,” she says.

Advice For Members

Jennie Zea

Jennie’s advice to Blue Cross members is to find out which preventive screenings you are eligible for, and then talk to your doctor about getting them. Once you start a screening schedule, it’s important to stick with it and not miss any screenings that are due. That’s especially true for breast cancer.

“I think there is a general assumption that breast cancer is usually hereditary, and that if there is no history in your family you might not be as motivated to get your annual mammogram,” she says. “The reality is only 5 to 10 percent of cases are hereditary. That means 70 to 80 percent of breast cancer cases are sporadic.” With no way to predict when or where the disease will strike, regular mammogram screening is the best defense.

Another misconception is that mammograms are painful, Jennie says. “Although we all experience pain differently, mammograms shouldn’t be painful. My experience was brief, slight discomfort. The technician talks you through everything and the imaging is done very quickly.”

Breast cancer does not always have warning signs in the early stages, Jennie notes. “My cancer never would have been caught without that mammogram. Early detection saves lives and I have no doubt that mammogram saved mine.”

Learn more about breast cancer from the American Cancer Society.