Mammograms 101: What You Should Know

Thinking about your first mammogram can be scary and nerve-wracking. How much will it hurt? What if the doctors find something? What do I need to bring?

First, you’ll want to remember that mammograms are routine tests that save lives. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 13% of all women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. This year, more than 330,840 women are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer. A mammogram, which takes a picture of the inside of your breast and can detect cancer in its earliest stages, typically takes about 15 minutes.

With some preplanning, a mammogram can be a manageable experience and help bring peace of mind.

It is important to know that there are two types of mammograms: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. Screening mammograms are simple, yearly procedures and take between 10-15 minutes. Diagnostic mammograms are usually performed if an anomaly is detected and follow-up is required.

When You Should Get Your First Mammogram

Between ages 40 to 44 women should schedule their first mammogram. From ages 45 and 54, women should be getting a mammogram every year. After 55, schedule your mammogram every other year.

If there is a family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about scheduling your first mammogram in your 30s. Whatever your age, if you notice any unusual changes in your breasts during your monthly self-exam, notify your doctor and get a mammogram immediately.

What to Expect at a Screening Mammogram

During your first mammogram or your fifth, you’ll probably notice some discomfort during the procedure. Your breasts are x-rayed using low-dose x-ray technology while squished between two plates. To try to avoid some of the discomforts from the procedure, schedule the mammogram a week after your period, a time when you’ll find that your breasts are less sensitive.

Prepare for the Procedure

  • Try not to wear deodorants, antiperspirants, perfumes, powders, or any chemicals on exam day. Sometimes, these chemicals can show up on a mammogram image and make it harder to read the results.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication, like Tylenol or Motrin, an hour before the exam if you are concerned you might feel breast discomfort.
  • Wear a loose-fitting shirt that you can easily remove as you’ll need to undress from the waist up.
  • If you are breastfeeding or you are pregnant, tell the technician. Also, provide a history of any breast cancer that is in your family. If you have any breast symptoms — soreness, lumps, unusual discoloration — describe that to your technician as well.
  • Wear flat shoes. You’ll be asked to stand up for your mammogram, and you’ll want to be comfortable. Avoid heels, which could change your posture and make positioning difficult.
  • Feel free to bring a water bottle on exam day to remain hydrated, and eat and drink as normal on test day.

During the Exam

Two pictures are taken of each breast; one is a vertical image, and the other is a horizontal image. This part of the exam can be uncomfortable, though the discomfort should last just a few seconds (as long as it takes to get the image).

If the technician doesn’t offer advice about dealing with the discomfort, ask them what to expect before the procedure begins. Your technician is your partner through the procedure, and they should be able to help you through the hard parts.

Bring your doctor’s name to the mammogram center so that they can share the results with her or him. Your doctor should follow up with you after receiving the results.

It’s best to try to repeat your mammogram at the same location every year so that a history can be compiled. If you’ve had mammograms at a different facility, it’s a good idea to try to get the most current results so that the old mammogram can be compared with the new one.

It should take about two weeks (often sooner) to get the results of a screening mammogram. If you haven’t heard from your doctor’s office within two weeks of your screening, you can call to check on your results.

What to Expect at a Diagnostic Mammogram

A diagnostic mammogram is more specific than a screening mammogram. It’s done when symptoms have been detected or if there is a visible change on a screening mammogram from the previous year.

Additional imaging will be taken during a diagnostic mammogram, specifically on the area of concern that was detected.

Often, a radiologist will be present during the mammogram to check the images as they are completed. They will ask for more photos of the area of concern to make sure they are examining areas from all angles. Sometimes, spots or changes year over year need to be checked and are magnified with special photos.

Schedule Your Mammogram for Peace of Mind

Mammograms save lives. Talk to your doctor at your community healthcare practice to schedule your first mammogram or answer more questions. Then, learn more about Epic Care’s breast health procedures and find more information and resources for your breast health.