Mammograms: What You Need to Know for Early Detection

Mammograms have long been a vital tool in the early detection of breast cancer, helping doctors spot lumps in your breast and giving you a better range of treatment options in the event of a diagnosis. But many people are unaware of the importance of mammograms or what to expect during the exam itself. In this blog post, we’ll share what you need to know about mammograms and how the mammography program at National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.® (NBCF) is providing women all over the country with access to life-saving medical care.

Visit NBCF’s website for a library of helpful resources on all things breast cancer.

Importance of Mammograms

Early detection of breast cancer can make a huge difference in the treatment and outcome of those who are diagnosed. The American Cancer Society states that early detection of breast cancer when in the localized stage has a 5-year relative survival rate of 99%.[1] In additional to self-exams and clinical breast exams, mammograms are one of the best ways to detect signs of breast cancer so that your physician can perform a closer inspection.

Mammograms are the most reliable way to find breast cancer early before you have any apparent symptoms. Myths about the accuracy and potential discomfort of mammograms can keep some women from taking this important step in caring for their health, but the truth is that knowing what to expect in advance can make the process much simpler.

What to Expect When Making an Appointment

How to prepare

Try to choose a facility that specializes in mammograms if you have the option and stick to the same facility each time to make it easier to compare the images with those from previous years. When switching over to a new facility for the first time, bring with you a list of all the places and dates of any mammograms or breast treatments you’ve had done in the past so that they can easily transfer your records.

To ensure that your images are as accurate as possible, try not to schedule your mammogram when your breasts are tender or swollen, and avoid the week before your period. You should also avoid wearing deodorant or antiperspirant the day of the exam, as these may contain substances that can show up on your x-ray.

What to tell the technologist

If you’ve noticed any recent changes or issues with your breasts, bring it up with your technologist before the exam. Be sure to mention any medical history that can increase your risk of breast cancer, such as the use of hormones or a history of breast cancer in your family. Breastfeeding and pregnancy can be two factors that affect breast imaging, so inform the technologist if you’re currently breastfeeding or think that you may be pregnant.

Screening vs. diagnostic mammograms

There are two types of mammograms: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. While both mammograms involve taking an x-ray of the breast, screening mammograms are the initial routine exams used to detect breast cancer in women who don’t have any apparent symptoms. If the screening mammogram displays suspicious results, your doctor will then order a diagnostic mammogram. This will be a more detailed x-ray that gives them views of the breast from multiple angles.

What to expect during a screening mammogram

All mammograms require you to undress above the waist, although you will receive a wrap to wear. Only you and the technologist will be in the room during the exam. The technologist will then position your breasts for the exam, placing your breast on the machine’s plate. The plastic upper plate of the machine will lower to compress your breast, allowing the technologist to take an accurate picture.

While you may experience a bit of discomfort during the compression, it only lasts a few seconds each time. If you experience pain instead of just discomfort, tell your technologist. The technologist will change position of your breasts to take several images, providing two views of each breast. The entire procedure of a screening mammogram lasts around 20 minutes.

What to expect during a diagnostic mammogram

Diagnostic mammograms will involve more images being taken, usually focusing in on the specific area that stood out during the screening mammogram. The radiologist will check the images of your breast while they’re being taken, allowing them to take further pictures in case they need to take a closer look. Spot views or magnification views may be taken to provide the radiologist with an even closer look at smaller areas of concern.

Getting your results

Typically, the facility will send a full report of your mammogram results to your doctor within 10 days. If you haven’t heard from your doctor by then, call the facility or your doctor to follow up. According to the FDA’s Mammography Quality Standards Act (MQSA), mammography facilities are required by law to share a written summary of your results in lay terms within 30 days of the exam.2

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NBCF’s Mammography Program

Because of the importance of mammograms in providing early detection for breast cancer, NBCF has established the National Mammography Program to provide free screening mammograms, diagnostic mammograms, 3D mammograms, and diagnostic services, including biopsies and ultrasounds for women in need. They work with a network of partner medical facilities throughout the country to provide grants for free breast screening and other diagnostic services.

Low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women can have access to services such as screening mammograms, diagnostic mammograms, tomosynthesis (also known as 3D mammograms), and more. In the event that the mammogram results in a breast cancer diagnosis, these facilities have also put in place systems and partnerships to provide patients with access to treatment.

NBCF has a vast collection of resources for women looking to learn more about early detection and breast cancer diagnosis. For more information about mammograms and programs during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you can also visit NBCF’s website. Check it out today to find out more about how to be proactive in your health and help spread awareness about the importance of mammograms and early detection!