What is a Mammogram?

December 18, 2019

Put simply, mammograms are x-rays for the breasts, used to notice irregular lumps or tissue masses, screening for cancerous masses before they can grow any bigger. The sooner we catch breast cancer, the more likely it is you’ll be a cancer survivor. Plus, early detection typically translates to a less-invasive cancer treatment protocol.

There are still plenty of questions that surround mammograms and how beneficial they are – aren’t. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has an easy-read chart, detailing mammograms and their positive effect on breast cancer survival rates in populations of women screened as per current, medical screening standards.

And, as ACOG states, “Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer death in American women. Regular screening mammography starting at age 40 years reduces breast cancer mortality in average-risk women.”

Quick Facts

Here are mammogram quick facts including what you can expect during a mammogram procedure.

  • The procedure takes no more than 10 to 15 minutes
  • Mammograms are typically free. Mammograms adhering to ACOG’s screening guidelines fall under the umbrella of women’s wellness visits, so they’re free (or have a minimal co-pay) depending on your insurance carrier.
  • Don’t have insurance or feel you can’t afford a mammogram? Visit the CDC’s page about free- to low-cost mammogram screenings.
  • ACOG recommends women get an initial mammogram at age 40, and yearly mammograms from age 45- until age 55.
  • Women 55-years and older should get screened every-other-year and should discuss whether or not to continue getting mammograms at age 75.

Women with a family history of breast cancer, or considered to have a higher risk for breast cancer, may be advised by their physician to have mammograms more often.

What happens during a mammogram?

A mammogram usually takes place in the radiology department, using a specialized x-ray machine. You’ll be asked to take off clothing above your waist, as well as your bra, and will don medical gown that opens in the front.

The radiologist will place your breast on a table-like structure with a bottom plate (adjusting the height to meet your breast) and your breast will be pressed on top (squashed pretty flat) by a flat plate. She’ll leave the room and take the x-ray.

If the image looks clear enough, she’ll come back and reposition your breast to get a side-view. If the images are clear, the same steps will be repeated for the other breast. When the radiologist has four, clear mammogram images, you are finished. The results of your mammogram will be sent to you via your doctor – typically within one- to three weeks.

Note: Radiologists cannot provide any information about your breast images and cannot tell you the results of a mammogram.

Tips for optimizing mammogram comfort and clarity

While mammograms aren’t typically painful, most women find them uncomfortable. There are things you can do to make yourself as comfortable as possible and to ensure the images are clear and accurate.

  • Schedule your mammogram for the week or two after your period. Breasts are more tender the week before – and during – your period, causing more discomfort or pain during the procedure.
  • Let the radiologist know if you have tender breasts.
  • Skip the deodorant – or wash it off before your appointment. Keep breasts free of lotion, oils, powder, or other substances that can obscure the images (often showing up as white spots – aka “suspicious lumps”).
  • Wear a skirt or pants on mammogram day, so you only have to take off your top. Otherwise, you’ll be standing in your underwear and gown – and sometimes it’s cold in those rooms.

Normal vs. abnormal mammogram

The good news is that most mammograms come back with “normal” results. However, as with a pap smear, there’s no reason to panic if you results are abnormal or warrant further testing. Sometimes dense breast tissues, large breasts, or benign lumps/cysts look like potential cancer.

Over time, your accumulated history of mammogram films helps your doctor compare them, highlighting irregular lumps or growths more clearly.

If your physician is concerned about a potential lump or breast abnormality, she’ll speak with you in person and schedule you for further testing. She may also refer you to a breast specialist or surgeon. Again, this isn’t a cause to panic, but a sign that she’d like someone with breast expertise to assess the situation.

Are you past due for a mammogram, or ready to schedule your first one in honor of your 40th birthday? Contact us here at Women’s Health Association and we’ll get you on the radiologist’s schedule.