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Mostly used as a tool to screen for breast cancer, a mammogram uses an x-ray to create a picture of the inside of your breast. It can be used to find breast cancer before other signs are visible. It can also help with a breast cancer diagnosis if symptoms are found. Women should get yearly mammograms as early as age 40. If you have a high risk of breast cancer because of a family history of it, you should talk to your doctor about getting mammograms sooner.

What is a Mammogram?

A mammogram [MAM-uh-gram] is a picture of the breast that is made with an x-ray. The picture can show signs of breast cancer, such as a lump.

Most of the time, it is a screening tool. That means it is used to check for breast cancer in women who are not known to have the disease. Sometimes it can be used as a diagnostic tool, which means that it can help diagnose breast cancer after signs of breast cancer are found.

Sometimes a mammogram can show something that is not normal but is not cancer either, such as a cyst. When a mammogram shows that something is not normal, your doctor might order another imaging test or a breast biopsy to follow up. The results will say if you have cancer or not.

Starting at age 40, all women should get a mammogram every year (unless they have had a mastectomy). If you have a high risk of breast cancer because of a family history of it, you should talk to your doctor about getting mammograms sooner.

Women younger than 40 who have a high risk of getting breast cancer or who have found a possible symptom of breast cancer, such as a lump, can also have a mammogram done. You are considered “high risk” if you have a genetic mutation that can cause breast cancer, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, or have a strong family history (such as a mother or sister who have been diagnosed with breast cancer).

For women who have had family members diagnosed with the disease, doctors recommend that they start getting a mammogram every year at a younger age than their family member was when diagnosed. For example, if your mother found out that she had breast cancer when she was 40, you should talk to your doctor about starting mammogram screening by age 38.

What are the Risks and/or Side Effects?

Having a mammogram exposes your breast to a small amount of radiation. Small doses of radiation from many mammograms have a small chance of causing cancer, but that risk is very low, especially when compared to the risk of getting breast cancer.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not have a screening mammography done. If you find something wrong with your breast such as a lump while you are pregnant or breastfeeding, safety measures will be taken. For example, if you are pregnant, your belly will be covered with an apron that is lined with lead to block the radiation.

Another risk of a mammogram is that it is not 100 percent accurate. Sometimes it will show something when cancer is not present, or it might miss the cancer. If you have dense breast tissue, a mammogram might not be able to show the cancer and an ultrasound of your breasts might need to be done.

In rare cases, finding breast cancer is not enough. The cancer might be very aggressive, might not respond to treatment, or might be found on top of other medical problems.

What are the Benefits?

A mammogram can find breast cancer before you do. At the beginning, breast cancer may not show any symptoms. It might be too small to form a lump you can feel, and it usually does not hurt. Being able to see a picture of the insides of your breasts is important because finding breast cancer early can be important.

How Do I Prepare?

When you schedule your screening mammogram, you can make it for a day when you know your breasts will be less tender. Breasts are often tender during the week before your period. If you are going in for a diagnostic mammogram to check out a lump or other breast cancer symptoms, you may not be able to wait. Either way, you could consider taking an over-the-counter pain medication before your mammogram.

If you are going to a clinic that is new to you, either take your past copies of mammogram pictures with you or make sure that the clinic can access them in their system. Sometimes it is important to compare this year’s images to previous images. Your former clinic is required to give you copies and will often give them to you on a disc.

If the clinic does not have your past records or history, it is a good idea to write down any breast treatments, biopsies, or other procedures and take your list with you.

On the day of your mammogram, you should not wear deodorant or antiperspirant, lotion, or powder under your arms or on your breasts. These could create spots on your picture.

You might also want to wear a shirt and pants or skirt rather than a dress to make it easier for the doctor to examine your breasts without you needing to get undressed all the way.

How is it Done or Administered?

Before your mammogram, you will be asked to remove your shirt and put on a gown that opens in the front. To have a mammogram, you stand in front of an x-ray machine that has an upper plate and a lower plate. The technician taking the picture will move the machine up or down to match your height, putting the lower plate just under one of your breasts that is not covered by your gown.

Then they will move the upper plate down to press your breast as flat as possible. Having your breast tissue flattened helps to make a clear picture. You’ll have to stand in this position for several seconds while the picture is made. This can be uncomfortable for you, but it doesn’t last long. The process is then done the same way on the other breast.

Can I get a mammogram if I have implants?

Women who have had breast augmentation [awg-men-TAY-shun] with implants should follow their doctor’s advice about breast screenings. This usually involves getting a mammogram at age 40 and every year after.

If you have an implant or implants as a result of breast reconstruction (when the breast is rebuilt after a lumpectomy [luhm-PEK-tuh-mee] or mastectomy [mass-TEK-tuh-mee]), a mammogram may not be your best option for screening. Your doctor will talk to you about having a breast MRI, ultrasound, or both done.

When Will I Know the Results?

You might get a written report in the mail within 30 days, and this means that your mammogram looked normal. If a spot is found, you will get a phone call sooner asking you to return for a follow-up visit.

What are Follow-up Requirements and Options?

Most of the time, no follow-up is needed. You’ll receive a report within a month with your results. Sometimes you might get a phone call asking you to return for more pictures. Going back for more pictures is common. Most of the time, it does not lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer.

If something of concern shows up on your mammogram, you will be asked to make an appointment for a breast biopsy. In the U.S., 8 out of 10 biopsies show no cancer.