As women, we all know that we are supposed to get mammograms. Yearly mammograms are a necessity for women beginning at age 45, and sometimes sooner for those with risk factors like a family history of breast cancer. We also know that mammograms save lives: mammography has helped reduce the breast cancer mortality rate by 40% since 1990. But if you've never had a mammogram before, you probably have a lot of questions: What happens during a mammogram? Do mammograms hurt? Are they accurate?
Let's answer some of the biggest questions about what happens at your first mammogram.
What is a mammogram?
According to Cancer.org, a mammogram is a low-dose x-ray that allows your doctor to look for any changes or abnormalities in breast tissue, often well before you notice a lump. There are two types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.
A screening mammogram looks for signs of breast cancer in women with no known symptoms. During a screening mammogram, your doctor takes two x-rays of each breast at different angles.
A diagnostic mammogram further examines abnormalities found during a screening mammogram. During this mammogram, doctors take additional images of each breast, allowing them to compare this to the screening results. Doctors also perform a diagnostic mammogram for women who experience symptoms of breast cancer.
What happens during a mammogram?
During a mammogram, your doctor will use a low-dose x-ray machine designed to only look at breast tissue. Since it's difficult to process x-rays through breast tissue, the machine contains two plates to compress the breast to allow for more accurate images with less radiation. You'll be asked to place one breast at a time on the bottom plate. Your doctor will lower the top plate to flatten your breast and take the x-ray.
Digital mammograms are most common these days, where your doctor will record the images and save them to a computer. Also available are 3D mammograms, which allow for a more precise, 3D view of your breast tissue. The downside? Your health insurance may not cover a 3D mammogram, and in some cases, these require more exposure to radiation.
Do mammograms hurt?
Ok, here's the bad news: since the machine compresses your breast during the mammogram, it is entirely possible that you'll feel pressure or pain. The good news is that it only lasts for a few seconds, and it shouldn't take more than 15 minutes to do your full mammogram. When you weigh that against the consequences of not having a mammogram - like a lifelong battle with breast cancer - it seems like a fair trade-off.
Are mammograms safe?
There's a common misconception that mammograms expose your body to unsafe levels of radiation, but this simply isn't true. According to HopkinsMedicine.org, mammograms only use a small amount of radiation, and it is within medical guidelines.
We are exposed to various levels of "background radiation" daily. The amount of radiation from a mammogram is equal to about two months of exposure to background radiation. But don't worry! The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulating agencies highly regulate mammograms using the established Mammography Quality and Standards Act.
Are mammograms accurate?
Yes - all the more reason to schedule one! According to Komen.org, mammography correctly identifies 87% of women who have breast cancer. Women over the age of 50 have a higher sensitivity to mammograms, meaning that their accuracy can be even greater.
False positives do happen. However, the chance of having one after having one mammogram ranges from 7-12%. They are more common among young women and women with dense breast tissue. Additionally, the more mammograms you get, the more likely you are to experience a false positive.
It's unfortunate, but that's why it's important not to panic if your doctor calls you back after an abnormal mammogram.
How do I prepare for a mammogram?
- Avoid scheduling the mammogram a week before your period if possible, since this is when your breasts are most sensitive.
- Bring a list of past biopsies or other breast treatments if you've had any. This list can help prevent false positives.
- On the day of your scheduled exam, don't wear antiperspirant or deodorant since some of the substances in them can show up in the mammogram as white spots. Instead, bring deodorant with you so you can apply it after your exam.
- Be sure to tell your doctor about any changes to your breasts before getting your mammogram.
What happens after I get a mammogram?
It's hard not to be stricken with worry when your doctor calls you back after a mammogram. Try not to stress. Since doctors don't have a baseline to which they can compare the results, women who have just had their first mammogram commonly require a follow-up visit. It's also common for those who haven't experienced menopause yet.
Fortunately, fewer than 1 in 10 women who get called back after a mammogram actually have cancer.
Have you scheduled your first mammogram yet?
If you're 45 or older, it's incredibly important to speak with your doctor about scheduling your first mammogram if you haven't already. Be sure to check in with your doctor if you're under 45 and have a family history of cancer, or if you have any other burning questions. When it comes to breast cancer, early detection is everything: it can be a matter of life and death.
If you're pre- or post-menopause, breast cancer prevention isn't the only thing on your mind. Keep reading the FemmePharma blog for expert tips on intimate skin moisturizers, hot flashes, sleeplessness, and more.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. About 1 in 8 U.S. women will diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. In support of women diagnosed and living with breast cancer, FemmePharma will donate $5 to Living Beyond Breast Cancer with every purchase of our intimate skin moisturizer throughout October when you use the code LBBC5 at checkout.