The Mammogram: A Can't-Miss Screening
By Brett T. Parkinson, MD
Mar 21, 2017
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
Did you know Utah is among the lowest in the nation for mammography screening? A recent research snapshot from the Utah Women & Leadership Project shows Utah is fifth lowest in the nation for this lifesaving cancer screening, and we’ve been below the national average since 1994.
Why is making a mammogram part of your preventive care routine so important? Because some tumors detectable by breast X-ray are too small to be detected by touch.
There are two types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic. Which one a doctor orders depends on whether or not you have signs of or symptoms of breast cancer. If you have no symptoms, you can always schedule your own screening mammogram.
A screening mammogram can detect cancer, even if you don’t feel a lump or have other symptoms. It typically consists of two X-ray pictures of each breast, taken from different angles.
A diagnostic mammogram—which takes more views of the breast—is performed, if you have exhibited symptoms, or if an abnormal result has shown up on a screening mammogram. An ultrasound exam is often performed as well.
Still having periods? Don’t schedule the mammogram for any day during the week before your period (when breasts are most tender). Scheduling outside that week makes for a more comfortable examination and a clearer X-ray.
If you have had mammograms taken elsewhere, arrange for the prior exams to be sent to our facility, so that old and new X-rays can be compared. Most of the time, your previous exams can be transmitted electronically to one of our breast imaging centers.
On the day of your appointment, wear clothes that let you easily undress from the waist up—e.g., a shirt with pants or skirt. Don’t use any perfume, deodorant, lotion or powder under your breasts or arms. These can cast a shadow on the X-ray pictures.
During the mammogram, your breasts will be compressed between two firm surfaces, which spreads out your breast tissue, making it less likely that a small cancer will be obscured. A machine will record the images and they will be digitally stored for interpretation, usually the following day.
Intermountain Healthcare recommends that women begin yearly screening mammograms at the age of 40. Consult with your doctor about scheduling your next screening mammogram. Of course, if you have any symptoms—like a lump, fullness, nipple discharge, or other changes—you should have a diagnostic mammogram.
Mammograms can help detect cancer before you feel a lump. However, many cancerous lumps are first noticed during clinical or self-breast examination. You and your doctor must be familiar with your breasts, as mammography is not a perfect test. Mammography is the only screening test for breast cancer that has been shown to save lives in multiple scientific studies, but a screening mammogram can miss up to 10 percent of breast cancers.
Over the last 25 years there has been a 35-40 percent decrease in breast cancer deaths, due in large part to the widespread availability of screening mammography. Remember, one in eight women will eventually be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 75 percent of cases occur in women with no family history.