During Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, you might be thinking not only about your own breast health, but also about the health of the women you love. As you consider the risks and preventive screenings related to breast cancer, you may realize that it’s time to schedule a mammogram, which is considered the gold standard of breast cancer screening. Typically beginning at age 40, women should have mammograms to identify any abnormalities in the breast tissue that may indicate cancer. By finding these abnormal areas early on, you can expect more effective treatment that is more affordable and less invasive than treatments for advanced breast cancer. If you aren’t sure what to expect during your mammogram or you have anxiety about this preventive exam, read on to get some answers to common questions about breast cancer screening with mammography.
What is a mammogram?
In order to understand why mammograms are so important, you should know what they are and how they work. Mammograms use specialized X-ray equipment that compresses the breast tissue to take images that will reveal any potentially harmful changes in the breast. Digital mammography has become the industry standard, because it allows for lower exposure time for greater safety and comfort. Many women who have not had their first mammogram are under the impression that the procedure is very painful, but experienced radiologists should be able to manage the discomfort. While there will be some mild pressure, you should not feel extreme pain or discomfort during the mammogram; if you do, speak up so the radiologist can make any necessary adjustments. Your appointment should last less than one hour, and the exam itself only takes about 10-15 minutes.
Who should schedule a mammogram?
In the past, doctors recommended that all women over 40 have mammograms once per year, but guidelines have changed as more is understood about mammogram technology and breast cancer itself. Now it is recommended that women consult their doctors for individual screening schedules between the ages of 40 and 50, earlier if certain risk factors such as family history of breast cancer are present. At the age of 50, women should start having mammograms once every two years, regardless of health and family history. Even men can play a part in ensuring that women follow the right screening schedule, as they can remind their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters to schedule the appointments they need for proper screening.
What can you expect during the test?
Mammograms require very little preparation on part of the patient. Your primary physician will likely send your medical records to the specialist’s office where you will have your exam. On the day of, be sure to avoid any deodorant, perfume, or body spray, since these products can alter the image produced by the mammogram.
What happens when results are abnormal?
The possibility of abnormal mammogram results can be scary, but it should not stop you from having the exam. If there is something wrong, it is best to discover it early when treatment will be most effective. You will not learn the results of your mammogram right away, regardless of the outcome. When there are abnormalities present, your doctor will recommend follow-up care with further imaging tests, needle biopsies, or other procedures, depending on the type of lesion spotted on the X-ray. In many cases, abnormalities identified through initial mammograms are the result of non-cancerous conditions, so you should not panic if you’re called in to discuss the results of your test.
Should you be concerned about radiation exposure?
Because X-rays use radiation to produce images of the breast tissue, there are concerns about radiation exposure from mammograms. However, the dose of radiation is very low, and the benefits of mammography far outweigh any potential risks.
If you have more questions about your breast health before your mammogram, MeMD can help you feel at ease. Our providers are on-call for you 24/7, so you can become better informed about your health from the comfort of home.