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What is a Mammogram?

A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast that can be used to check for breast cancer in women before any signs or symptoms are present. A high-quality mammogram plus a clinical breast exam are the most effective ways to detect breast cancer early . There are two types of mammograms:

Screening mammogram: Two x-ray images of each breast are taken and used to detect tumors before they can be felt.

Diagnostic mammogram: Several x-rays at various angles are taken and used to diagnose breast cancer if signs of breast cancer are present or if there is a change between screening mammograms. The technician can magnify a problem area to make a more detailed picture, which helps the doctor make a correct diagnosis.

How Often Should I Go?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends:

· Women ages 50 to 74 years should get a mammogram every 2 years.
· Women younger than age 50 should talk to a doctor about when to start and how often to have a mammogram.
· Mammograms are also recommended for younger women who have symptoms of breast cancer or who have a high risk of the disease.

Recommendations for women with an average risk of developing breast cancer may vary. For example, the American Cancer Society recommends that women with an average risk between ages 45 to 54 should be screened every year.

What Do Mammograms Show?

The radiologist will look at your x-rays for breast changes that do not look normal and for differences in each breast. He or she will compare your past mammograms (if applicable) with your most recent one to check for changes. The doctor will also look for lumps and calcifications.

· Lump or mass. The size, shape, and edges of a lump can give doctors information about whether or not it may be cancer. On a mammogram, a growth that is benign often looks smooth and round with a clear, defined edge. Breast cancer often has a jagged outline and an irregular shape.
· Calcification. A calcification is a deposit of the mineral calcium in the breast tissue.

Calcifications appear as small white spots on a mammogram. Macro calcifications are large calcium deposits often caused by aging, and are usually not a sign of cancer. Micro calcifications are tiny specks of calcium that may be found in an area of rapidly dividing cells.

Abnormal Mammograms

If you have a screening test result that is suspicious or may suggest cancer, your doctor may order some of these tests:

· Diagnostic mammogram : multiple x-rays that focus on a specific area of the breast.
· Ultrasound : an imaging test that uses sound waves to create a picture of your breast.
· Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) : uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer, which takes detailed pictures of breast tissue.
· Biopsy : a test in which fluid or tissue is removed from your breast and evaluated.

Risks and Benefits

Risks Benefits
· Uses small dose of radiation. The risk of any harm is very slight. The benefits nearly always outweigh the risk.
· False-positive results occur when radiologists decide mammograms are abnormal but no cancer is actually present. This can occur with high density breasts.
· False-negative results occur when mammograms appear normal even though breast cancer is present. Overall, screening mammograms miss about 20 percent of breast cancers that are present at the time of screening.
· Early detection does not always prevent fast growing cancers from continuing to spread.
· One of the most effective ways to detect breast cancer early.
· Early detection of breast cancer with screening mammography means that treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it has spread.
· Screening mammography can help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74, especially for those over age 50.

The Process

You stand in front of a special x-ray machine and a radiologic technician places your breasts, one at a time, between an x-ray plate and a plastic plate. These plates help to flatten the breasts and spread the breast tissue out to obtain a clearer picture. You will feel pressure on your breast and it may cause you some discomfort; you might feel squeezed or pinched for a few seconds. Usually two pictures are taken of each breast — one from the side and one from above. A screening mammogram takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.

Preparing for Your Mammogram

First, check with the facility you are having the mammogram for any special instructions. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
· Schedule your mammograms regularly at the same facility. If you change locations, make sure you have those x-ray films sent to the new facility.
· Try to avoid making your mammogram appointment during the week before your period when breasts can be tender and swollen.
· If you have breast implants, be sure to tell your mammography facility that you have them when you make your appointment. Your technician will have to take extra steps to ensure they get a quality image.
· Wear a top and bottom so that you can undress from the waist up. Don’t wear any deodorant, perfume, lotion, or powder under your arms or on your breasts, which can cause shadows on your mammogram.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Are mammograms painful?
A. Most women do not find it painful. Some women may find the pressure on the breast uncomfortable, but it lasts for only a few seconds. Tell your technician if you feel pain.

Q. Where can I obtain a high quality mammogram?
A. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certified mammography facilities that meet strict quality standards for their x-ray machines and staff, and are inspected every year. You can ask your doctor or the staff at the mammography center about FDA certification before making your appointment. Or, you can search for an award-winning breast center at

Q. When will I know the results?
A. I f you don’t hear from your healthcare provider within 10 days, do not assume that your mammogram was normal; call your provider or the facility where the mammogram was done. Mammography clinics must also mail women an easy-to-understand summary of their mammogram results within 30 days.

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