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Mammography: What to Expect

What is mammography?
Mammography is a low dose X-ray technique used to create an image of the breasts on an X-ray film or computer screen. The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute recommend:

  • A routine screening exam for women by age 40, even if they are healthy and have no symptoms; mammograms every one to two years from age 40 to 50; and mammograms every year after age 50.
  • Diagnostic mammography for any woman who has signs or symptoms such as lumps, tenderness, discharge from the nipple or any breast changes, depending on your age.

The exam is performed by a radiologic technologist, who is nationally certified in mammography and the use of mammography equipment. The radiologist, who specializes in reading mammograms and making medical diagnoses based on X-rays, will carefully examine the images.

How do I prepare for my mammogram?
Mammograms should be performed during the first two weeks following menstruation. Breasts are less swollen and sensitive during that time. On the day of your exam, do not use deodorant, talcum powder or any ointment or cream on your breasts or underarms. They leave a coating that may be picked up by the X-rays, distorting the mammogram.

What should I bring with me?
If you have a specific concern, your doctor should write this on the prescription. If you have had mammograms done elsewhere, it is important that you bring them with you on the day of your exam. You also will need your insurance card(s) and some form of identification.

What can I expect the day of my mammogram?
You will be asked to undress above the waist and wear a patient gown, and answer a few brief questions about your medical history and risk factors for breast cancer. The technologist may need to examine your breasts to identify any abnormalities that should be imaged.

The mammography exam is performed with special equipment that enables the radiologist to view the thickness of the breast tissue on the X-ray film. The mammography technologist will position you in front of the machine. You will be asked to stand for the exam, if possible. Your breast will then be positioned on the mammography equipment, and firm pressure (compression) will be applied. The exam may be a bit uncomfortable, but any discomfort will last for less than one minute while the picture is being taken.

The breast will be X-rayed from above and from the side. Both breasts are X-rayed to compare the images.

The Breast Care Program offers MammoPad, a soft foam pad that cushions the breast as it is compressed to obtain an X-ray image. The single-use disposable foam pad, which is about the size and thickness of a computer mouse pad, provides a warm barrier between a woman’s skin and the imaging machine’s cold metal plates. The MammoPad does not interfere with the imaging process.

Why is compression used?
Compression is essential to produce a quality mammogram. It is not dangerous, nor does it produce any long-term discomfort or damage to the breast tissue. It achieves three important goals:

1. Radiation to the breast is reduced by decreasing the thickness of the breast tissue and spreading it evenly over the film.
2. Compression improves the quality of the image by reducing any blurring of the image that might be caused by motion and by allowing the radiologist to see through the layers of tissue.
3. Suspicious lesions within the breast tissue can be identified more easily when the breast tissue is spread evenly over the film.

What will happen following my mammogram?
There are no restrictions following your exam. Some tenderness of the breast and rib cage may last until the next day, or you may notice temporary discoloration of one or both breasts due to compression.

How long will the mammogram take?
The imaging portion of the exam is usually very quick. However, there are a few other steps that require some time. You should plan to be at the center for 45 minutes to an hour.

How do I find out the results of my mammogram?
Your mammogram will be reviewed by a radiologist. If you have a new concern, have had breast cancer, have breast implants or have had breast surgery in the past year, the radiologist will check the images while you are here. This will take at least 30 minutes. If you are symptom free and have no history of breast cancer, your images will be read later that day or the next day.

The Breast Care Program will then send a written report of the results of your mammogram to your physician, who will discuss the findings with you. You also will receive a letter from the Breast Care Program with the results.

What if I am pregnant?
If you are pregnant or suspect you may be pregnant, let your physician know before scheduling the exam.

How do I pre-register?
All registrations are completed by our schedulers at the time the appointment is made. Patients should have all insurance information on-hand when making the appointment. You also may pre-register online.