When it comes to breast cancer, early detection is key, which you may already know. But what you should also know is that mammograms are one of the most effective ways to detect breast cancer in its early stages. However, if you’re like millions of women all over the world, you may not know much about what a mammogram actually entails. In this post, we aim to demystify the mammogram process and answer some commonly asked questions.
When Should I Get My First Mammogram?
It is important to consult with your doctor as to when the appropriate time to get a mammogram may be and how often you should be getting one. Every person is different, and people who have family histories of breast cancer or who have other risk factors may want to start getting mammograms at an earlier age. There are conflicting ideas about when women should get their first mammogram. Some professionals say to start getting annual checkups at age 40, and some say women don’t need one until age 45 or 50. There are conflicting ideas as to frequency, too. Some medical professionals say mammograms should happen once every year and others say once every two years.
Mammograms are important, but every mammogram comes with a small amount of risk. The procedure requires you to come into contact with a small amount of radiation. If you start getting mammograms too early and too often, you could end up getting exposed to a dangerous amount of radiation that will actually increase your likelihood of getting breast cancer. The important thing is to have an open conversation early with your doctor to see what the best plan for you will be.
How Can I Reduce the Risks Involved with Mammograms?
You should perform breast self-examinations on a monthly basis. These self-exams should start early at age twenty, long before you ever have your first mammogram. These exams help you familiarize yourself with how your own breasts feel and will help you to know if something is abnormal. If you detect a change, speak with your doctor right away to see if it’s time to get a mammogram.
It’s important to listen to a trusted expert who understands your unique health and family history. You may need to start getting regular mammograms much earlier than forty depending on how great your risk of developing breast cancer is.
How Should I Prepare for My Mammogram?
It’s probably best to go to the same clinic or healthcare provider each time you get a mammogram unless your doctor says otherwise. That way, the facility can easily compare your mammograms over time and see if any changes develop. However, if that isn’t an option for you, be sure to bring information about your past mammograms to any new clinics you go to. This should include the dates you had previous mammograms and the name of the facilities where you had them. You should also bring the information about other relevant exams and procedures you’ve had such as biopsies.
Tender or swollen breasts can make getting a mammogram more uncomfortable and painful. Swollen breasts can also make it more difficult for a technologist to get accurate scans from your mammogram. For these reasons, it is best to never schedule a mammogram right before you start your period. It’s also a good idea to avoid wearing deodorant, antiperspirant, or any kind of fragrance on the day of your exam as sometimes these products can leave white spots on your mammogram results.
What Exactly Happens During a Mammogram?
First, when you go into your mammogram appointment, your provider will ask you some questions, for example:
- “Have you noticed any changes in your breasts recently?”
- “Do you have a family history or personal history of breast cancer?”
- “Do you use hormone supplements?”
- “Have you had any surgeries recently?”
- “Are you nursing or pregnant at the moment?”
When it’s time for the exam itself, you will have to take off your clothing on your upper body. Facilities typically provide wraps so you can cover up until it’s time to take the exam, and most of the time, it’s just you and the technologist in the room.
The mammogram is a low-dose x-ray system, and the process usually takes about fifteen minutes in total. The technologist will flatten your breasts, one at a time, against a plate on the mammogram machine. The breast tissue must be spread out so it’s easier to notice abnormalities in your test results.
Getting your breasts flattened is often uncomfortable and might be a little painful. However, it only lasts a few seconds, so any discomfort is quickly over. While your breast is flat, the technologist takes the photos. Usually, they need at least two photos of each breast to get an accurate representation of your breast tissue.
While your mammogram is happening, make sure to communicate with your technologist about anything they are doing that causes you intense pain or discomfort, as it could be a sign of a deeper problem.
Remember that the person who is taking your mammogram won’t actually be able to tell you if you have any abnormalities. They are only responsible for taking your mammogram, and then a professional radiologist analyzes the results. If everything on your mammogram shows up fine, you can expect a phone call from your health care provider in about ten days, or if everything shows up normal, you may simply receive a letter.
Even if your mammogram results come up with an abnormality, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Your doctor will ask to have some extra testing done to get more information about the problem. This might be an ultrasound, a biopsy or a diagnostic mammogram that will focus solely on the area with abnormal breast tissue.
Getting your first mammogram can be a little nerve-wracking, but hopefully by knowing what to expect and how to prepare for your mammogram, you will feel less apprehensive about scheduling your mammogram. Remember that it’s always better to be safe and get your regular mammograms than risk missing the chance to detect breast cancer at an early stage. Any pain or discomfort you experience in a mammogram is well worth the opportunity for early detection.