An annual screening mammogram is an invaluable tool for early breast cancer detection. If it's your first time getting a mammogram, you may not know what to expect. Even women who have had mammograms before may have questions or concerns. Here's what you should know.
1. What Is a Mammogram?
A mammogram is an X-ray image of your breasts. There are two different types of mammograms. Screening mammograms are routinely administered to detect breast tumors and abnormalities in women who have no apparent symptoms. Diagnostic mammograms are used to investigate suspicious results on a screening mammogram, such as a lump, thickening of skin on the breast, or changes in the size or shape of the breast.
2. When Should You Get Your First Screening Mammogram?
According to the American Cancer Society, women should start having annual screening mammograms at age 45. At age 55, the frequency can decrease to every other year. However, some women with a family history or genetic tendency should be screened sooner. Talk with your health care provider about your risk for breast cancer and the best screening plan for you.
3. How Should You Prepare for a Mammogram?
Choose a facility that specializes in mammograms and performs them regularly. To ensure that the facility meets certain standards, be sure to ask whether it's certified by the Food and Drug Administration.
If you've had previous mammograms, try to return to the same facility so the radiologist can compare past images with your new ones. If you're switching to a new facility, request digital copies of any previous mammograms and bring them with you to your appointment.
Avoid scheduling your breast exam the week before or during your period, when your breasts are more likely to be tender and swollen.
On the day of your exam, avoid wearing deodorant, antiperspirant, powders, perfumes, or lotions. These substances may show up on the mammogram and cause an inaccurate reading.
Some women find mammograms to be uncomfortable or painful. If you're concerned about this, consider taking an over-the-counter pain medication — such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen — approximately an hour before your exam.
4. What Can You Expect at Your Mammogram Appointment?
When you arrive at the facility, you'll be given a gown and asked to remove your clothes above the waist, as well as any jewelry that might interfere with the images.
You'll be asked to stand in front of an X-ray machine while a radiology technician positions and compresses your breast between two plates. Firm compression is needed to flatten the breasts in order to obtain high-quality images. You might be asked to move your head, lift your arm, or adjust your torso to provide an unobstructed view.
While the X-ray picture is being taken, you will be asked to stand still and hold your breath for a few seconds. Typically, at least two pictures are taken of each breast: one from the top and one from the side.
Having your breasts compressed and squeezed is mildly uncomfortable, but this portion of the exam is brief, and the procedure only takes about 15 to 20 minutes in its entirety.
5. How Will I Get My Mammogram Results?
The technologist who performs your mammogram cannot discuss what they see while administering the exam. Instead, a radiologist will read and interpret your X-rays and report the results to your doctor. If there is a concern, you'll hear back from your mammogram facility right away.
6. What Do My Mammogram Results Mean?
An abnormal mammogram does necessarily mean you have cancer, but you will need additional tests to rule it out. Most abnormal findings on a mammogram are not breast cancer, but you may be referred to a specialist for further diagnostic testing.
If your results are normal, continue to get mammograms based on the plan you've set in place with your doctor. Mammograms are most effective when they can be compared with previous ones.
Schedule your next mammogram today — don't put it off. Remember, screening can detect breast cancer early when it's easier to treat and more likely to be cured.