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Your First Mammogram: What to Expect

Attending to proper nutrition, exercise, and routine doctor visits helps maintain a healthy lifestyle. Lesser-known preventive measures, like annual mammograms, enable women to take care of themselves and their breasts -- and even detect cancer. Early detection via mammograms can save lives when the cancer can be successfully treated. Knowing what to expect from your first mammogram will help you understand the process and make an appointment with confidence.

What Is a Mammogram?

A mammogram is a noninvasive procedure that takes an X-ray and uses a small amount of radiation to present a clear and thorough image of your breasts. The X-ray image is used to detect abnormalities and breast cancer in women without signs or symptoms, says the National Institutes of Health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 220,000 American women are diagnosed yearly with breast cancer, which is the second most common cancer in women. While your risk increases if you have a family history of breast cancer, only about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer patients have a family history. Other factors, like being overweight after menopause and smoking, can also increase your risk.

When to Get Your First Mammogram

The risk of getting breast cancer increases with age. The American Cancer Society recommends women 45 to 54 should receive annual mammograms. Women 55 and older should receive a mammogram at least every two years. Those with a family history of breast cancer or with breast problems should have their first mammogram earlier. Speak with your doctor about risks, when to receive your first mammogram, and the best screening for your situation.

When scheduling your mammogram, consider your menstrual cycle and ensure that your breasts aren't swollen or tender. Don't wear deodorant on the day of the exam to ensure a clear x-ray. Most imaging centers offer weekend and after-hour appointments, and according to the National Cancer Institute, most insurance companies cover the cost of mammograms.

What to Expect

Upon entering the room, you'll be asked to get undressed from the waist up and given a hospital top to wear. Your technologist will ask you about your breast history, current issues, and any family history.

Some women find that their first mammogram is slightly uncomfortable, but not painful. During the mammogram, each breast will be positioned between two plates that gently spread and flatten your breast tissue to be X-rayed. Digital mammography tends to be more comfortable than traditional screenings because of the new body-conforming design of the compression paddles and less compression time.

Once your breast is positioned, your technician will image each breast separately. There are two images per breast: forward-facing and from the side at about a 45-degree angle. The entire procedure takes 20 to 30 minutes. When reviewing your results, your doctor will examine changes and problematic areas that could be signs of cancer, says the American Cancer Society.

Now that you know the importance of receiving a mammogram, don't delay. Take care of yourself and make sure to schedule an appointment when the time is right.

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