The following is adapted from the Mayo Clinic:
A mammogram is an X-ray image of your breasts used to screen for breast cancer. Mammograms play a key role in early breast cancer detection and help decrease breast cancer deaths.
During a mammogram, your breasts are compressed between two firm surfaces to spread out the breast tissue. Then an X-ray captures black-and-white images of your breasts that are displayed on a computer screen and examined by a doctor who looks for signs of cancer.
A mammogram can be used either for screening or for diagnostic purposes. Research shows that starting screening mammograms at age 40 and doing them every year saves most lives. You many need to start screening earlier than 40 years old due to your family history. Talk to your doctor or call our office to find out.
Why it’s done
Mammography is X-ray imaging of your breasts designed to detect tumors and other abnormalities. Mammography can be used either for screening or for diagnostic purposes in evaluating a breast lump:
- Screening mammography. Screening mammography is used to detect breast changes in women who have no signs or symptoms or new breast abnormalities. The goal is to detect cancer before clinical signs are noticeable.
- Diagnostic mammography. Diagnostic mammography is used to investigate suspicious breast changes, such as a new breast lump, breast pain, an unusual skin appearance, nipple thickening or nipple discharge. It’s also used to evaluate abnormal findings on a screening mammogram. A diagnostic mammogram includes additional mammogram images.
When to begin screening mammography
Some general guidelines for when to begin screening mammography include:
- Women with an average risk of breast cancer. Professional groups differ on their recommendations, although all agree that starting screening at age 40 and doing them yearly saves most lives. The Society of Breast Imaging and American College of Radiology advises women with an average risk to begin screening mammograms yearly at age 40.
- Women with a high risk of breast cancer. Women with a high risk of breast cancer may benefit by beginning screening mammograms before age 40. Talk to your doctor about evaluating your individual risk of breast cancer. Your risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer or a history of precancerous breast lesions, may lead your doctor to recommend magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in combination with mammograms.
Risks and limitations of mammograms include:
- Mammograms expose you to low-dose radiation. The dose is very low, and for most women the benefits of regular mammograms outweigh the risks posed by this amount of radiation. To this day we have not seen a cause and effect between radiation from mammograms and breast cancer.
- Mammograms aren’t always accurate. The accuracy of the procedure depends in part on the technique used and the experience and skill of the radiologist. Other factors — such as your age and breast density — may result in false-negative or false-positive mammograms.
- Mammograms in younger women can be difficult to interpret. The breasts of younger women contain more glands and ligaments than do those of older women, resulting in dense breast tissue that can obscure signs of cancer. With age, breast tissue becomes fattier and has fewer glands, making it easier to interpret and detect changes on mammograms.
- Having a mammogram may lead to additional testing. Among women of all ages, about 10 percent of mammograms require additional testing, including additional imaging tests such as ultrasound, and a procedure (biopsy) to remove a sample of breast tissue for laboratory testing. However, most abnormal findings detected on mammograms aren’t cancer.If you’re told that your mammogram is abnormal, your radiologist will want to compare it with previous mammograms. If you have had mammograms performed elsewhere, your radiologist will ask for your permission to have them sent to the radiology center so that they can be compared with the current mammogram.
- Screening mammography can’t detect all cancers. Some cancers detected by physical examination may not be seen on the mammogram. A cancer may be too small or may be in an area that is difficult to view by mammography, such as your armpit. Mammograms can miss 1 in 5 cancers in women.
How you prepare
To prepare for your mammogram:
- Choose a certified mammogram facility. Ask whether the mammogram facility is certified by the Food and Drug Administration. This certification will ensure that the facility meets certain standards.
- Schedule the test for a time when your breasts are least likely to be tender. If you haven’t gone through menopause, that’s usually during the week after your menstrual period. Your breasts are most likely to be tender the week before and the week during your period.
- Bring your prior mammogram images. If you’re going to a new facility for your mammogram, request to have any prior mammograms placed on a CD. Bring the CD with you to your appointment so that the radiologist can compare past mammograms with your new images.
- Don’t use deodorant before your mammogram. Avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, powders, lotions, creams or perfumes under your arms or on your breasts. Metallic particles in powders and deodorants could be visible on your mammogram and cause confusion.
What you can expect
During the test
At the testing facility, you’re given a gown and asked to remove neck jewelry and clothing from the waist up. To make this easier, wear a two-piece outfit that day.
For the procedure itself, you stand in front of an X-ray machine specially designed for mammography. The technician places one of your breasts on a platform and raises or lowers the platform to match your height. The technician helps you position your head, arms and torso to allow an unobstructed view of your breast.
Your breast is gradually pressed against the platform by a clear plastic plate. Pressure is applied for a few seconds to spread out the breast tissue. The pressure isn’t harmful, but you may find it uncomfortable or even painful. If you have too much discomfort, tell the technician.
Your breast must be compressed to even out its thickness and permit the X-rays to penetrate the breast tissue. The pressure also holds your breast still to decrease blurring from movement and minimizes the dose of radiation needed. During the brief X-ray exposure, you’ll be asked to stand still and hold your breath.
After the test
After images are made of both your breasts, you may be asked to wait while the technician checks the quality of the images. If the views are inadequate for technical reasons, you may have to repeat part of the test. The entire procedure usually takes less than 30 minutes. Afterward, you may dress and resume normal activity.