Q: What is a mammogram?
A: A mammogram is a safe, low-dose X-ray procedure that films the internal tissues of our breasts. Mammograms are a simple exam, performed as a standard screening study, to determine the possibility of irregularities within the breast. They can reveal areas too small or deep to feel which may or may not require further investigation.
Q: What is a diagnostic mammogram?
A: Additional films of the breast, beyond the standard 2-view screening exam, may be performed to clarify a questionable finding on the initial study or focus on a site where the patient or physician feels a lump or thickening of the breast tissue. This may include films taken from different angles, magnification views, or compression of a small area of the breast to maximize detail. If needed, an ultrasound exam of the breast may also be added to the diagnostic study.
A physician (radiologist) personally selects the diagnostic views to be obtained and reviews the results during the exam with the technologist. The radiologist will often discuss the results of the diagnostic study with the patient at the conclusion of the exam.
Q: Does every woman need a mammogram?
A: Yes. Presently we don’t know the cause of breast cancer, but early detection is a woman’s best protection. A mammogram may help discover a change as small as the head of a pin, years before it can be felt. Additionally, having mammograms done on a regular basis allows for comparisons of a baseline study with future mammograms. This provides a more accurate assessment of any breast changes. The sooner detected, the easier and more successful the treatment.
Q: When should I have my mammogram?
A: The American Cancer Society guidelines, based upon numerous scientific studies, suggest that most women begin by age 40 and continue yearly for the rest of their lives. Your health care provider can help you determine when you should begin and how often you should have a mammogram based upon specific medical facts in your history.
Q: What will the exam be like?
A: A radiologic technologist specializing in mammography will perform the mammogram. The technologist has completed a rigorous course in education and training and works under close supervision of the radiologist to assure the most accurate results from your examination.
You will be asked to undress from the waist up. The technologist will position your breast and gently compress it upon the image plate (which contains the film). It is necessary to spread the breast tissue to reduce the thickness of the breast. This allows for lower doses of radiation and the clearest possible X-ray image. You will probably have at least two pictures taken in different positions. The procedure will then be repeated for the other breast.
The procedure usually lasts about 15 to 30 minutes.
Q: How will I learn the results?
A: The radiologist (a physician specialist) will study your mammogram. The results will be made available to you from your designated health care provider or practitioner. Each patient also receives a letter summarizing the results in lay terms.
Q: How do I perform a self-exam?
A: A regular program of breast self-examination, mammography and physical exams most effectively provides early detection and treatment. Roughly 96% of all breast cancer cases can be detected when all three methods are used together in a planned program.
Many normal breasts (for women under 50) tend to be lumpy and are not a sign of cancer. Every woman should become familiar with the look and feel of her own breasts so that she will be able to recognize any changes that might occur.
Breast Self-examination: Step 1 - Look for Changes
- Stand or sit (with arms at your side) in front of a mirror under good light and look for changes in the size, shape, texture or color of your breasts. Check for indentations, pulled-in nipples, scaliness, rash or prolonged conditions.
- Next, raise your arms above your head and repeat the same steps. Also, turn in profile, and examine your breast from the side.
- Now, press your hands down upon your hips and tense your chest muscles. This will make any changes more prominent.
Breast Self-examination: Step 2 - Feel for Changes
Begin by lying flat on our back with a pillow under your shoulder. Use the pads of three fingers in a bowed-out position. Move your fingers in circles about the size of a dime. You can use cream or powder to help our fingers glide from one spot to the next. Use light, medium, and firm pressure at each spot to examine the full thickness of your breast tissue. Large-breasted women should do the above exam while lying on their side. If any changes are noted, call your healthcare specialist right away.
Remember: Tell your doctor or technologist if you are pregnant, think you may be or if you’ve had breast surgery.
You should also:
- Wear comfortable clothing and avoid wearing jewelry, deodorants and powders-- metallics may interfere with the accuracy of the film image.
- For a more comfortable exam, schedule mammograms for the week after the onset of your period.
- Bring previous mammograms for comparison.