A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that can be used to look for early signs of breast cancer. Most doctors recommend the screening test starting at age 50, but in some cases, a mammogram can be done earlier. Women with symptoms or a family history of cancer may need earlier or more frequent mammograms. Although the procedure can be uncomfortable, a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer early so treatment can be initiated.
Screening vs diagnostic mammograms
There are 2 different types of mammograms that can be ordered. A screening mammogram is used for the general public and is a way to check for breast cancer before symptoms develop or a growth can be felt. During a screening, x-ray pictures of each breast are taken from 2 different angles. Diagnostic mammograms are typically reserved for women with symptoms, or if the screening mammogram identified something unusual. Diagnostic mammograms usually include additional breast x-ray images to obtain a more thorough picture.
What to expect
Although everyone experiences a mammogram differently, many describe the procedure as uncomfortable but not painful. During the mammogram, the breasts are compressed in a machine while the images are taken. The good news is the pressure only lasts for a short period while the x-ray is in use. The entire procedure takes about 15 minutes. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should inform the technician so proper precautions can be taken. After a mammogram, the breasts may feel a little sore but other side effects are unlikely.
Analyzing the results
Doctors use a scoring system to evaluate the results of the mammogram. Most women will be relieved to hear the result is negative or benign. If any concerning findings are identified on the image, the doctor will let the patient know when to follow up. For some people, a screening mammogram may be recommended again sooner than usual. For others, a biopsy may be necessary to get more information.
Sometimes, the results will be provided to the patient the same day the mammogram is performed. Other times, the turnaround time is almost 2 weeks. Never assume that no news is good news, and always confirm the final result. The ordering doctor should be able to answer any questions about the mammogram results and the next steps if necessary.
Although a mammogram isn’t the most fun activity, the screening tool saves lives. Early detection of breast cancer is pivotal. Always talk to a doctor to determine when screening should start based on age and family history. If an abnormal growth is ever identified, do not wait for an annual exam and immediately contact a healthcare provider. When preventative medicine is used correctly, cancer is avoidable for many people.