Mammograms are the best tool doctors have to find breast cancer early. A mammogram can show early signs of breast cancer long before you or your doctor can feel or see changes. When breast cancer is found and treated early, many women go on to live a long and healthy life.
What is a mammogram and how is it done?
A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray picture of the breast. A woman stands in front of a mammography machine and one of her breasts is placed on a plate and gently, but firmly, pressed from another plate above her breast. The plates flatten the breast and keep it still, which helps produce a better mammogram image. The pressure lasts a few seconds and does not harm the breast. The same steps are repeated with the other breast. The plates of the machine are then tilted to take a side view of each breast. When complete a woman will have had two different X-rays of each breast for a total of four images.
Will the mammogram hurt?
Most women say that getting a mammogram is uncomfortable. A few women say that it is painful, although the pain doesn’t last very long. What you experience will depend on the size of your breasts, how much they need to be pressed, the skill of the technologist, and where you are in your monthly menstrual cycle.
When do I get the results?
The way you get the results of your mammogram varies by facility. At many facilities, the radiologist reads the mammogram in a few days to a few weeks and sends the results to you and your doctor. Some facilities ask you to wait several hours while the radiologist reads it that day.
Almost all facilities ask that you wait until the mammogram film is developed and checked to make sure it is clear and doesn’t need to be redone. Digital mammography equipment can display the image within a minute or two of taking the X-ray. This enable the technologist to tell almost immediately if an image needs to be redone.
What can affect my mammogram?
Surgery and major injuries can affect your mammogram. Be sure to tell your health care team if you have had breast reduction, breast reconstruction, or breast implants. Women who have undergone certain surgical procedures may need additional x-ray pictures taken during their mammogram.
When should I get a mammogram?
Most cancer organizations agree that women of normal risk who have had no previous breast symptoms or problems should begin getting mammograms every 1-2 years starting at age 40. (In this stance, DBCC joins other organizations including Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.) Previously, almost all organizations agreed on these guidelines. However, in late 2009, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) changed their recommendation. Since then the USPSTF and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that women ages 40-49 talk to their doctor about when they should begin screening and how often and that women ages 50 and older have screening mammograms every 2 years.
The new USPSTF guidelines have been quite controversial and many organizations continue to promote the former recommendation. Many insurance policies cover mammograms beginning at age 40, and as Affordable Care Act states that insurance companies should use the previous guidelines to make coverage decisions (those that recommend annual screenings starting at age 40), most insurance companies will likely continue to cover mammograms for women in their forties.
Talk to your doctor if you have any breast symptoms or a family history of breast cancer. You may need to get tested earlier or more frequently than other women.
What are the limitations of mammograms?
Like any medical test or procedure, mammograms are not perfect. A fraction of cancers will go un-diagnosed following mammograms. Furthermore, follow-up testing will show that most suspicious spots seen on abnormal mammograms are actually benign, or non-cancerous. Contrary to some misconceptions, mammograms cannot prevent breast cancer and not all tumors that are detected will have a good prognosis. While most tumors are more easily treated when found early, some aggressive tumors will have a poor prognosis regardless of time of diagnosis. Despite their shortcomings, mammograms detect 80-90% of breast cancers that have not yet began to show symptoms and that are too small to be felt by breast examination (ACS, “Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2009-2010.” p. 16).
Further Information about the Mammography Guidelines Controversy:
On the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® home page, under the"Understanding Breast Cancer” drop-down menu, select “Early Detection & Screening.” On the left sidebar, select “Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations for Women at Average Risk”