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What to expect during a mammogram

A mammogram is an imaging exam that allows health care professionals to view the structure of the breast, to determine if there are any signs of abnormality such as cancer. Mammograms are considered the best method of early detection of breast cancer and are recommended for all women on a yearly basis, starting at age 40.

A mammogram is an X-ray, which is a type of imaging exam that uses a very small amount of radiation to create a picture of the inside of the body. A mammogram produces images of the tissues and structures of the breast, as well as any area of abnormal growth such as a benign cyst or cancerous tumor.

“A mammogram is capable of demonstrating the very earliest X-ray signs of breast cancer, which is the reason that an ultrasound examination cannot replace the test as a screening tool,” said Dana Salters, director of the Women’s Center at Maury Regional Medical Center in Columbia.

Some imaging facilities offer 3D mammography, an enhanced form of mammography that combines a conventional mammogram with additional images of the breast tissue in layers, giving an enhanced view of the breast structure.

If you are preparing for your first mammogram, or it has been a while since your last exam, you may have questions about what to expect. Here is a brief overview of this important exam that could save your life.

On the day of your mammogram, a radiologic technologist with specific training in mammography will escort you to a private dressing area, where you will remove all clothing from the waist up and put on a special gown that opens in the front. The technologist is available to answer any questions you may have about the exam.

In the mammography area, the technologist will instruct you how to stand and where to place your hands on the imaging unit. Each breast will be imaged separately, with one plate beneath the breast and another plate moved down to compress and hold the breast in place. During this process, you may feel some discomfort while the breast is compressed, but it is important to remain as still as possible. You may be asked to hold your breath for a few seconds while the image is being taken. These steps will be repeated for a second view of the same breast. The technologist will then perform the same steps for the other breast. Once the technologist has a chance to make sure the images are clear, you should be ready to get dressed. The entire process typically takes less than 15 minutes.

“While you will usually feel some minor discomfort during a mammogram, the exam only takes a few minutes,” said Salters. “Mammography technologists make every effort to make patients as comfortable as possible before and during the exam, while providing a quality imaging exam for radiologists to review.”

Images from your mammogram are reviewed by a radiologist, a physician with special training in interpreting radiologic images. If the radiologist determines that your mammogram is normal, you and your physician of record will be notified of the results. If there is any area of concern, the imaging facility will ask you to return for additional imaging to determine if there is reason for concern or if the breast is normal. It is important to understand that an abnormal screening mammogram does not always mean that cancer is present.

Here are some tips to prepare for your mammogram:

  • Schedule your mammogram after your menstrual period, since your breasts may be tender just before your period or during that time.
  • Deodorant can show up on an X-ray as a white spot. If you wear deodorant to your mammogram appointment, you will be asked to use a cleansing cloth to remove it. You may want to bring deodorant in your purse to use after the exam.
  • Because you will need to undress from the waist up and put on a special gown, you may want to wear a top with pants or a skirt. Some imaging facilities have full-length robes available for those who need to fully undress.

A screening mammogram can be scheduled without a physician’s order and most insurance plans cover the expense of a yearly screening exam. A mammogram can be scheduled with a simple phone call. Learn more about mammography, including 3D mammography, here.


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