What to Expect in a Mammogram

by Katelyn Schwanke
(last updated November 15, 2011)

Women of all ages are often leary of mammograms. Perhaps you are one of these women, having heard that they are uncomfortable or even painful. Mammograms are simple medical tests which have benefits that far out weigh any perceived discomfort. Knowing ahead of time what to expect from a mammogram can help women feel motivated to be tested regularly.

A mammogram is like an x-ray, as it employs low-dose ionizing radiation that allows for images of the breast tissue to be projected in picture form for analyzing. During the procedure, a doctor will gently compress your breast to "even out" the tissue in order to more clearly analyze it. The doctor will take images from all angles to ensure a thorough and effective examination. You should be careful not to apply deodorant or lotion the day of your examination, as some of these can cause spots to appear on the x-ray. It is recommended that you have an examination done at least once a year and up to five times a year.

Mammograms should be supplemented by self breast examinations. Each month women of all ages, age twenty and up, should do a self breast examination. Self breast examinations are easy and can be done following the "seven-P rule":

  • position (stand in front of a mirror)
  • perimeter (feel the entire breast)
  • palpate (feel for lumps or masses)
  • pressure (palpate with increasing levels of pressure)
  • pattern (use a pattern for consistency in order to avoid missing an area of the breast)
  • practice (become aware of how healthy tissue feels)
  • plan (understand the process of what to do if you do find a mass or lump)

If either you or the radiologist suspect a mass, there are several steps taken to find out whether or not the mass is benign (no risk) or malignant (cancerous tissue). A biopsy (a tissue sample), ultrasound, and other procedures may be done to determine the mass type. Be aware that out of 1,000 women in the United States, seventy are called back because the radiologist sees a mass in the x-ray; only two percent of women will have a form of cancer referred to as "low stage," which often can be cured quite effectively.

You should be aware of the risk of "false negatives"; false negatives are results that appear benign or healthy when there is actually unhealthy tissue or a mass growing. There is a ten percent chance of you getting a false negative.

Regular mammograms and supplemental self examinations are key in effective prevention and early detection of breast cancer and can greatly reduce your risk. If you still have questions on what to expect at your first mammogram you may call your radiologist's office and speak to an RN.

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