What is a mammogram like, exactly? How do they work? What can you expect? How can you prepare? We’ve got all the answers right here, and we also dispel some common myths.
Mammograms are one of those things that are seen as a necessary evil. Many regard the procedure as being uncomfortable. I mean, let’s face it, most of us aren’t overjoyed at the prospect of having our breasts squished between two plates. Plus, if you’re shy like me, you may be nervous about the idea of another person (even a physician) seeing or touching your breasts. I got anxiety going for a bra fitting and that involved significantly less exposure.
Discomfort aside, most women are fearful of the results of their mammogram. This fear is even higher if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer before. However, mammograms are extremely important for diagnosing early breast cancer. And regular screenings can increase women’s survival rate by finding breast cancer in early stages.
How Mammograms Work
You may already know how mammograms work. Maybe you don’t care. But if you do want to know, here’s a primer:
The procedure involves the use of x-rays. A woman’s breast is placed on a support plate and is slightly compressed with a parallel plate. Small bursts of x-rays pass through the breast and the x-ray image is captured on the opposite side. The images are sent directly to a computer as a digital image, or the machine makes an image on film.
Physicians examine the images for tissue that appears strange. The abnormal tissue may vary in size, shape, and contrast. These variations help physicians determine whether the abnormality is cancerous, benign, or a different issue, such as a complex cyst. If physicians see any strange areas of tissue, they may order a biopsy or additional mammogram views.
Common Mammogram Myths
Now that you have a very basic idea of how a mammogram works, let’s discuss some common myths.
- I’m too young or I don’t have a family history: Some women believe that they are either young enough to skip a mammogram or simply do not need one since breast cancer does not run in their family. Unfortunately, these are both false. While it is true that a family history increases your risk of developing breast cancer, many women with the disease don’t have a family history of it. Breast cancer is more common among women who are 55 or older. Still, younger women can develop breast cancer, so mammograms are important even among women who are younger.
- Mammograms cause cancer: it’s true that scanned breasts get exposed to radiation. However, the dose is so small that there’s an extremely low risk of long-term harm. Many women get exposed to more radiation in their everyday lives than during a mammogram. Given the huge benefits of getting regular mammograms, the risk of skipping them is far greater than the risk of radiation exposure.
- They’re inaccurate: mammograms are by no means a perfect diagnostic tool. Still, they are the best tool available for early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms are capable of identifying breast cancer roughly 80 percent of the time. This may seem a bit discouraging. But there are no other methods of detection out there with a higher accuracy rate.
- It’s painful: this varies from woman to woman because
everyone’s pain threshold is different. Some women experience more pain than others during a mammogram. This is especially true if a woman’s breasts are extra sensitive during their procedure. But the large majority of women describe the experience as being temporarily uncomfortable rather than painful.
What to Expect During Your Mammogram
What is a mammogram like in terms of how it feels and what to expect? Everyone’s experience with getting a mammogram will be slightly different. These small differences result from women’s varying reasons for getting a mammogram, to the size of her breasts, and even to the location of the procedure. Despite this, there are several commonalities that can give you a better idea of what your mammogram will be like.
Before the Test
Once you arrive at the hospital or radiologist’s office, you’ll have to spend some time waiting until your appointment. In most cases, you’ll wait in a separate waiting room specifically for people getting a mammogram. As a result, they’ll most likely call you in shortly after checking in. Many hospitals do not allow guests in the designated mammogram waiting room.
After you’re done waiting, a nurse will take you to get changed. You’ll be able to keep your pants and shoes on. But anything from the waist up is removed and replaced with a hospital gown. Your radiology technician may also place stickers on your breasts. These stickers are commonly used to cover up the nipples and any moles so that they are more easily identifiable in the mammogram images.
During the Test – What is a Mammogram Like?
When you finally go in for your test, your radiologic technician will have you stance in front of a special x-ray machine. The technician then positions your breasts on a platform. During this time, you and the technician are the only individuals in the room. After the technician positions your breast, she’ll help you position your torso, arms, and head properly.
To achieve a high-quality picture, your technician will flatten your breast using an upper plate. This plate will gradually push your breast down on the platform until the entire breast is the same thickness. You must stand still and hold your breath during the x-ray exposure so the pictures are clear.
In most cases, the compression process only lasts for a few seconds. However, two views of each breast are typically taken. They might need more views if you have large breasts or breast implants. Technicians may also need additional views if you’re receiving a diagnostic mammogram. If you experience any pain during the imaging process, let your technologist know.
After the Test
Your technician will check the quality of the images of both your breasts. If the images are clear, you can dress and go back to your regular day. If any images are unclear, you may need to complete a portion of the mammogram again. You may also need to come in at a later date for additional pictures.
According to federal law in the United States, you must receive the results of your mammogram within 30 days. However, many women receive their results much sooner. Women who got a diagnostic mammogram to identify a lump typically receive their results faster than women receiving a screening mammogram. You can ask your technician what the time frame is for receiving your results.
Preparing for a Mammogram
Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is a mammogram like?,” we’ll change gears and talk about preparing for your mammogram.
The preparation process starts with finding the right facility. You may not always have the ability to choose a facility. If you do, you want an imaging facility that is familiar with performing mammograms. Facilities that perform mammograms multiple times a day have more experience in taking mammogram images. They’ll likely produce clear mammogram images and may have higher rates of accuracy than a facility that handles mammograms every once in awhile.
After you find a good facility, try going to the same facility every time. This makes is easier to compare your mammograms year after year. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. When going to a new facility, bring a list of your past mammograms and biopsies, including dates. You can request that your old facility send these records to your new one.
Beyond choosing a facility, you must plan when you schedule your mammogram. Ideally, schedule your procedure for the week after your menstrual period. During this week, your breasts are less tender and swollen. This means your mammogram will be less painful.
Scheduling your procedure early on in the day is also helpful. When you get a mammogram, you should not wear any lotion, deodorant, perfume, or powder under your arms or on your breasts. These things can cause white spots to appear on the x-ray images. Many women would struggle with skipping these for an entire day. So, it is easiest to get a mammogram in the morning.
In terms of what to wear, try picking a two-piece outfit. This makes it easier to remove your top and bra. While you can wear a pullover top, most physicians recommend a button-up shirt because they are easier to remove. Further, wear jewelry that’s easily removable. It may be easier to just skip jewelry for that day, but it’s generally not required.
More questions about mammograms, beyond “What is a mammogram like?” You might want to check out some of our articles on this topic.