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Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Mammograms

What do mammograms show?

Like other X-ray images, mammograms appear in shades of black, gray and white, depending on how dense the tissue is.

  • Mammograms show abnormalities in the breast that may or may not be cancer. Dense breast tissue and fatty breast tissue look different on a mammogram. Very dense tissue, like bone, shows up white, while fat looks dark gray. Breast cancer and some benign (not cancerous) breast conditions are denser than fat and appear a lighter shade of gray or white on a mammogram.
  • Since all of our mammograms are digital, the images can be lightened or darkened, and certain sections can be enlarged and looked at more closely.
  • If something unusual shows up on your screening mammogram, the next step will be follow-up testing to see if its cancerous or benign.

Does it hurt to get a mammogram?

Some people find getting mammograms uncomfortable; others less so. While the X-ray is being taken, you may feel some pressure from the two plates, but any discomfort should only last a few seconds. If you’re still having your period, it may be more comfortable to make your appointment for just after your period when your breasts are least tender.

When and how often should I get mammograms?

First things first: if you ever notice a change in your breast, that is the right time to talk to your doctor about getting a mammogram. It doesn’t matter how young you are, how recently you had a mammogram, or how soon your scheduled screening mammogram is coming up. Don’t wait!

When it comes to regular screening mammograms, most major health organizations recommend them, but there’s still debate about:

  • how much benefit there is from mammography, especially in younger women;
  • when to begin mammography; and
  • how often to get a mammogram.

In other words, there isn’t a totally straightforward answer to this question. How often you get screened and what screening methods are used also depends on your age, risk level and other personal factors. A good way to start figuring out what screening schedule is right for you is to talk to your doctor about your personal risk.

What’s the difference between 2D and 3D mammograms?

Standard mammograms are considered two-dimensional, or 2D. 3D mammograms are enhanced images created from 2D images. Here are some ways 3D and 2D mammograms compare:

  • A 3D mammography machine creates both 2D and 3D mammograms. You stay in one place while all the images are taken on the same machine.
  • A 3D mammogram takes a few seconds longer than a 2D mammogram because more images are taken, but you likely won’t even notice a difference.
  • Radiologists need special training to read 3D images.
  • Depending on the method, 3D mammography gives the same or slightly more radiation than 2D mammography. This amount is still within FDA guidelines.
  • Your insurance should definitely cover 2D screening mammograms, and there’s a good chance it also covers 3D mammograms. Still, it’s best to confirm with your insurance provider and the imaging center before going for 3D.

Can the radiation from a mammogram harm me?

You are exposed to a small amount of radiation when you get a mammogram. While this exposure can increase the risk of breast cancer over time, the increase is so small that studies show the benefits outweigh the risks (especially for women who are 50 and older).

What to expect at your appointment

If you’ve never had a mammogram before, knowing what to expect can smooth the process and ease anxiety. Start by talking to your doctor about any questions you have. You can also talk to your technologist (the person who does the mammogram) about any concerns when you’re at the appointment. If you’ve noticed a change in your breast or underarm area–even if you’re not sure if it’s anything to worry about–mention it to your doctor. If you notice a change in the time between seeing your doctor and getting your mammogram, tell the technologist before they do the mammogram.

Here are some things it’s good to know beforehand.

  • If you have a regular cycle, you may want to schedule your appointment in the week after an upcoming period. Your breasts should be less tender at that time, and it’ll be easy to remember the date of your last period if they ask for it.
  • It’s a good idea to keep a record of every mammogram for future reference. Make sure to note the name and address of the center and the date you had the mammogram done.
  • We will ask you for the name of your doctor so we can share your results in case any follow-up is recommended.
  • You can expect a screening mammogram to take about 15 minutes.
  • To get the mammogram you’ll need to undress from the waist up, so it’s a good idea to wear a shirt you can remove easily.
  • Avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, perfumes, powders or lotions on your breasts and underarm areas on the day of the exam. Ingredients in these products can show up on a mammogram and make it harder to read. (If you forget and wear one of these products, we will give you wipes so you can remove it before the test.)
  • During the exam, each breast is pressed between two plates and an X-ray image is made. Two views of each breast are taken, one from top to bottom and the other from side to side.
  • Sometimes, the pressure from the plates can be uncomfortable, but it only lasts for a few seconds. If you have concerns, talk with your doctor about taking acetaminophen (eg. Tylenol) or ibuprofen (eg. Advil, Motrin) about an hour before the exam. You can also talk to the technologist before your exam if you’re worried about pain. The technologist can work with you to make you as comfortable as possible while still getting a good quality image.