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Mammograms: What Every Woman Needs to Know

Mammograms can detect many breast cancers before anyone can feel them. When breast cancer is found in its earliest stages, the majority of patients survive for at least five years, and many of these women are cured of their disease. 

The benefits and limitations of mammography vary based on factors like age and personal risk. Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (UPSTF) recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often they should get them.

The ACS recommends clinical breast exams (CBEs) at least every three years for all women in their 20s and 30s and annual CBEs for women ages 40 and older. The USPSTF, however, believes there is not enough evidence to assess the value of CBEs for women ages 40 and older. Women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors and make a decision about whether they should have a CBE.

What is a mammogram?

This low-dose X-ray produces an image of the inner structures of the breast. It can detect tiny calcium deposits or microcalcifications that are too small to feel. Most of these deposits are benign, but sometimes--especially when in clusters--they may be an early sign of breast cancer.

Preparing for the exam

If you've never had a mammogram, you may be nervous about it. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare for the exam may help ease your concerns. Try these tips:

  • If your breasts are sensitive before and during menstruation, schedule your mammogram the week after your period.

  • On the day of your appointment, wear a shirt and bra that you can remove easily because you'll need to undress from the waist up.

  • Don't wear deodorant, powder, or lotion, which can affect your X-rays.

  • If you've had a mammogram before but at a different facility, arrange in advance to have the most recent X-ray sent to your current facility. Your health care provider will want to check for changes since your last screening.

During the mammogram

A technician will help position your breast on a platform. The technician will take two X-rays for each breast, each from a different angle. The machine will compress your breast to get a clear picture of as much tissue as possible, including the armpit. This process lasts just a few seconds. Having your breast flattened may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn't hurt. The machine can be adjusted, so tell the technician if you experience any pain.

After the exam

You may receive your mammogram results that day, or the results may come in the mail within 15 to 20 days; all mammogram facilities are now required to send your results to you within 30 days. A copy of the report also will go to your doctor. Follow up with him or her if you haven't been contacted in more than a month. Do not presume that no news is good news. Call your doctor's office and ask for the result of the report.

If your results show an area of concern, don't panic. About 80 percent of breast lumps are not cancerous. Other tests, such as a diagnostic mammogram that takes more X-rays, or a biopsy, can help your doctor determine the cause.