A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that is used to screen for breast cancer. Screening tests help your doctor look for certain diseases or conditions before any symptoms appear. Having a mammogram can increase your chance of finding a problem early, at a more treatable stage. Often a mammogram can find tumors that are too small for you or your doctor to feel.
How does mammography work?
A typical mammogram consists of two X-ray pictures or views of each breast. In all four views, the breasts are compressed firmly between two clear plates. The breast compression and positioning is necessary to acquire the best possible images. Our staff will work hard to ensure that the examination is as brief as possible, and to minimize any discomfort you may feel. There are two types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.
- Screening mammography. Screening mammography is used to detect breast changes in women who have no signs or symptoms or observable breast abnormalities. This is the type of mammogram that most women over 40 have once a year. The goal is to detect cancer before any clinical signs are noticeable. This usually requires at least two mammograms from different angles of each breast. A physician's order is not required to schedule a screening mammogram.
- Diagnostic mammography. Diagnostic mammography is used to investigate suspicious breast changes, such as a breast lump, breast pain, an unusual skin appearance, nipple thickening or nipple discharge. It is also used to evaluate abnormal findings on a screening mammogram, or to view breast tissue when it is difficult to obtain a screening mammogram because of special circumstances. Additional images can be made from other angles or focus on areas of concern at higher magnification. A diagnostic mammogram takes longer than a screening mammogram because it involves more X-rays in order to obtain additional views.
When do experts advise starting mammograms?
For women who are at average risk for breast cancer, there are no easy answers for when to start having mammograms. Even the experts don't agree on when is the best time to start. For example:
- The American Cancer Society recommends that most women begin screening at age 40, and then have a mammogram every year.
- The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that most women begin screening at age 50, and then have a mammogram every 2 years.
But experts do agree that all women should start having mammograms by age 50. In general, women younger than 50 are at a lower risk for breast cancer. The risk for breast cancer goes up as you get older.
For women who are at increased risk for breast cancer, experts recommend that these women talk with their doctors about when they should start having mammograms and how often they should have them. If you have certain risk factors that put you at increased risk for breast cancer, your doctor may suggest that you have a mammogram at a younger age.
Safety in Imaging
At Intermountain Healthcare, our goal is to use the least amount of radiation (X-ray energy) needed to produce quality images. We work hard to make sure our equipment is safe and appropriate for your test. Our imaging teams have regular training on radiation safety. We communicate with doctors to help them choose imaging tests wisely.
Learn more about how Intermountain Healthcare reduces radiation dose