Definition

This exam uses low-dose x-rays to make a picture of breast tissue. The picture is called a mammogram.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women aged 50 and older get a mammography every 2 years. Women who are at high risk for breast cancer (eg, have a family history) may need to have mammograms starting at an earlier age and more often. Most organizations in the US and Canada recommend regular screening. There are differences of opinion among these groups, such as when to start and the time between screenings. Talk to your doctor about what is best for you.

Reasons for Test

  • Detect breast cancer
  • Identify changes in the breast tissue before a lump can be felt
  • Find a lump's location before a biopsy or surgery

Mammogram Showing the Growth of a Breast Mass

nucleus fact sheet image
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

What to Expect

Prior to Test

There are no special steps to prepare for this exam.

There is no proven method to decrease discomfort, but you can try:

  • Scheduling the exam when breast tissue is least tender. This is most often a week after your period.
  • Avoiding caffeinated drinks.
  • Applying skin numbing products—There is an FDA WARNING that some women have died from using too much.

NOTE: Tell the technician if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Are breastfeeding
  • Have breast implants —Ask if the facility uses special techniques to accommodate implants. Implants make it hard to see breast tissue.

On the day of your exam:

  • Do not apply deodorant, talcum powder, lotion, or perfume near your breasts or under your arms.
  • Ask your doctor if you should take a pain medicine like ibuprofen to relieve discomfort.
  • Wear comfortable clothing so you can easily remove your shirt.
  • Remove jewelry.
  • Bring copies of previous mammograms and reports with you. If you have them done in the same facility each time, they will have results of prior years. The doctor can compare the old images to the new ones.
  • Describe any breast problems to the technician before the exam.

Description of Test

You will stand in front of a special x-ray machine. It has a platform to place your breast on. The technician will adjust the height of the platform. One breast will be lifted and placed between special plates that hold film. The plate is brought close to the platform and compresses the breast. This allows for a clearer image. The exam will cause some discomfort. Tell the technician if you feel any pain.

Two pictures of each breast are taken. During one, you face toward the platform and the image is taken looking down at the breast. For the second, you stand beside the machine. This allows for a side view. The x-rays are done on the other breast. Extra images may be needed if you have implants or if the doctor is looking at a specific spot more closely.

After Test

You will wait in the facility until the x-rays are developed. More images may be needed. You can go home after the exam.

How Long Will It Take?

30-45 minutes

Will It Hurt?

You may feel some discomfort and pain.

Results

The radiologist will look at the images and may speak with you at the end of the exam. You will usually receive your results within 30 days. If you do not, call and ask for the results.

Your doctor will have a report and either send you a letter or talk to you about your condition. The next mammography is usually done in 1-2 years if everything is normal.

Mammograms can sometimes detect things that look like cancer but are not. If something is noticed on the mammogram, you may need to have other tests done, like an ultrasound or a breast biopsy. This will help determine if there is an actual problem or if everything is fine.

Also, like all screening tests, the mammogram will not detect every single abnormality.

Call Your Doctor

After the test, call your doctor if any of the following occurs:

  • Changes in a breast, including a lump or thickening
  • Skin discoloration or discharge from the nipple