Q: What is a mammogram?
A: A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast, and is the best screening tool widely available to detect breast cancer early.
Q: Is a mammogram painful?
A: During the procedure, each breast is compressed between two plates and an X-ray image is made. For some women, the pressure on the breasts can be uncomfortable and occasionally painful. Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) about an hour before the exam can help make the experience more comfortable.
Q: When is the best time to have a breast exam?
A: The best time for breast examination is 5-7 days after cessation of menses. Generally speaking, the breasts are less sensitive, therefore the most comfortable and least painful time to have a breast examination.
Q: How long does it take to perform a mammogram?
A: The procedure usually takes about 10 minutes.
Q: How do I prepare for a mammogram? What do I need to do the night before?
A:To prepare for a mammogram, you should dress comfortably in a two-piece outfit. (You will need to undress from the neck to the waist.) Please do not apply powders, deodorants or creams to your underarms or breasts – they may interfere with the clarity of an X-ray.
Q: How often should I get a mammogram?
A: Starting at age 40, women should have annual screening mammograms. Women under age 40 with a family history of breast cancer and/or other concerns about their personal risk should consult with a healthcare provider about risk assessment and when to begin screening mammography.
Q: Why are mammograms not recommended for women under 40?
A: Mammography is a very effective breast cancer screening tool overall. However, it may be more effective at detecting tumors in older women than in younger women. Images on mammograms appear in gradations of black, gray and white, depending on the density of the tissue. Fat appears dark gray and cancerous tumors appear a lighter shade of gray or white. Unfortunately, dense normal breast tissue can also appear light gray on a mammogram, which can make mammograms harder to interpret in younger women, since they tend to have denser breasts. After menopause, though, breast density usually begins to decrease, making the mammograms of older women easier to read.
Q: Does the radiation from a mammogram cause cancer?
A: Today, mammography has little radiation risk. The amount of radiation that is used in mammography has been reduced greatly and is considered to be safe for women of the appropriate age.
Q: How effective are mammograms?
A: Mammography has the ability to detect breast cancers before they can be felt by touch. However, a small percentage of breast cancers cannot be identified by mammography. For this reason, it is important to follow the guidelines for clinical breast examination (CBE) and to practice monthly breast self-examination (BSE).
Q: When is mammography not effective?
A: Mammography may not help with a fast growing or aggressive cancer that has spread to other parts of the body prior to detection. Even though mammography can detect most tumors that are 5 millimeters in size, finding a small tumor does not always translate to early detection.
Q: Why are breasts compressed during a mammogram?
A: When the breasts are compressed the tissue is “spread out” and brought closer to the film, allowing for a sharply defined study. This is necessary in order to find the subtle underlying changes (or rule them out) vital to a complete, “highest quality” study. You are in charge. The technologists will ask you when the compression is reaching the point of discomfort. Please keep in mind, generally, the greater the compression, the more diagnostic the study.
Q: What are calcifications?
A: Calcifications are deposits of calcium that appear on a mammogram. In older women especially, calcium may leave the bones and appear in other parts of the body, such as the joints or breasts. But, clusters of tiny calcifications (microcalcifications) can be indications of precancer or cancer. Microcalcifications usually form as small, tight clusters in the ducts that can be seen on a mammogram. Although they are not themselves dangerous, they can be a warning sign of cancer and lead a doctor to perform follow-up tests to determine whether the area is cancerous or not.
Q: Where can I get a free or low-cost mammogram?
A: Contact your local Komen Affiliate, Health Department, Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Prevention (BCCCP) Program, YWCA’s EncorePlus Program and the American Cancer Society.
Q: What is a “False Negative”?
A: A false negative occurs when a mammogram appears “normal” even when breast cancer is present. False negatives are more common in younger women than in older women. The dense breasts of younger women contain many glands and ligaments that make breast cancers more difficult to identify in mammograms. As women age, breast tissue becomes more fatty and breast cancers are more easily seen by screening mammograms.
Q: What is a “False Positive”?
A: A false positive occurs when a mammogram is read as abnormal but cancer is not actually present. False positives are more common in younger women. For women of all ages, 5-10% of mammograms are abnormal and are followed up with additional testing (a diagnostic mammogram, fine needle aspirate, ultrasound or biopsy). Most abnormalities will turn out not to be cancer.
If you have any questions about having your X-ray, please call us between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Friday at (213) 746-5800.