What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a highly sensitive x-ray of the breast using very low levels of radiation. The purpose of a mammogram is to detect breast cancer at its earliest stages, before it can be felt or cause symptoms. A mammogram may also be done to check a lump or a change in your breast.

Screening mammography is done regularly even when a woman has no symptoms. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. If a woman has a family history of breast cancer, screening mammograms should begin sooner. The best time to begin your annual screening mammograms should be discussed with your doctor.

To prepare for your mammogram:

Here are a few things you can do to make your mammogram more comfortable:

  • Wear a two-piece garment.
  • If your previous mammogram films were done at a different facility, please bring the films with you to your appointment and/or the address of the facility in case these are needed for comparison.
  • Stop drinking caffeinated drinks several days before your mammogram appointment.
  • If you are still having periods, schedule your mammogram for the week after your period. Your breasts will be less tender and have fewer lumps. (This is also the best time to perform breast self-examination.)
  • If you take hormones (estrogen and progesterone), ask your doctor about the best time to schedule a mammogram.
  • If breast pain is a problem for you, you may consider using a pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) one or two hours before your mammogram.
  • It is best to refrain from using deodorant and powder on the day of your mammogram. These products contain metallic bases and may cause specks on your mammogram.
  • Talk with the technologist performing your exam if you are concerned about the discomfort of a mammogram. She will apply compression slowly and only to a level that is tolerable for you.

What to expect:

A mammogram usually involves two x-rays of each breast, one taken from the side and one from the top. The breast must be compressed or squeezed between two flat surfaces for the pictures to be clear and show good detail of the breast. The compression may be uncomfortable but it is only for a few seconds for each picture. It is not uncommon for more pictures to be taken if the x-ray doctor (radiologist) sees an area in the breast that is unclear or abnormal looking.

Ultrasonography uses high-energy sound waves that can pass through the breast. This can show whether a lump is solid or filled with fluid. Ultrasonography is not uncomfortable or painful.

If an area in the breast is suspicious the radiologist may decide to remove some tissue from the breast to make a diagnosis. This is done in two ways:

  • Aspiration or needle biopsy – the doctor uses a needle to remove fluid or a small amount of tissue from the breast. This procedure may show whether a lump is a fluid-filled cyst or a solid lump (which may or may not be cancerous). The tissue goes to a pathology lab to be checked for cancer cells.
  • Surgical biopsy – a surgeon cuts out part of a lump or suspicious area. This tissue is also sent to a pathologist to be examined under a microscope to check for cancer cells. This area is often marked for the surgeon by a special type of mammography or ultrasonography called a needle localization. A wire is inserted into an abnormal area of the breast. The patient is then sent to the operating room with the wire in place. This maps out the exact area of the breast that the surgeon should remove.

Your results:

The results of a mammogram are sent to you by mail within 1 week hours after your exam. If additional films will be necessary to make a diagnosis, you will be contacted by a phone call from the technologist. You will  receive a letter in the mail.  A final report will also be sent to your referring physician.

If you have a finding on your mammogram which is probably benign (not cancer), it may require a short-term follow-up. A letter will be mailed within 48 hours of your exam. You can then call to schedule a follow-up appointment.

If you have a suspicious finding, your referring physician will be notified the day of your exam with the results and he or she will be advised of what follow-up is needed. You will receive a letter that says you need immediate follow-up. When you call the Mammography Department you will be given all the information you will need to schedule the appropriate follow-up appointments.

We recommend that you perform breast self-examination monthly. Have your doctor examine your breasts yearly and complete your breast health by having a baseline mammogram between ages 35 and 40 and yearly after age 40.

updated 3/11/04

For any questions or concerns

Contact the Radiology and Medical Imaging department at 434-924-9400.