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Mammography

(Breast X-ray; Mammogram; X-ray of Breast Tissue)

Definition

This exam uses low-dose x-rays to make a picture of breast tissue. The picture is called a mammogram.

Most medical organizations in the United States and Canada advise regular screening. There are some differences among these groups about when to start and how often to have the screenings. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) advises that women aged 50-74 years old get the test every 2 years. Other organizations advise screening every year starting at age 40. Women who are at high risk for breast cancer may need to have the tests starting at an earlier age and more often. Talk to your doctor about what is best for you.

Reasons for Test    TOP

This test is done to find breast cancer. It may be done:

  • As a screening test—in women without symptoms
  • As a diagnostic test—to make a diagnosis in women with symptoms like a lump or change in breast shape
  • To find out the size and site of a lump before a biopsy or surgery

Mammogram Showing the Growth of a Breast Mass

nucleus fact sheet image
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Possible Complications    TOP

Problems from the test are rare, but all procedures have some risk. If you are planning to have this test, your doctor will go over potential problems with you.

The test does use radiation. You and your doctor will weigh the harms and benefits of this test. The test may not be advised if you are pregnant. Be sure to talk about these risks with your doctor before the test.

What to Expect    TOP

Prior to Test

There are no special steps to prepare.

There is no proven method to reduce discomfort, but you can try:

  • Scheduling the exam when breast tissue is least tender. This is most often a week after your period.
  • Avoiding caffeinated drinks.
  • Applying skin numbing (anesthetic) products—anesthetic can have severe side effects, such as death. If your doctor advises an anesthetic medicine before the test:
    • Use exactly as advised by your doctor. Do not use more than advised.
    • Don't use over broken/cut skin or irritated skin.
    • Don't wrap the area after you put on the medicine.

Note : Tell the technician if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Are breastfeeding
  • Have breast implants —Ask if the facility uses special techniques for implants.

On the day of your exam:

  • Do not use deodorant, talcum powder, lotion, or perfume near your breasts or under your arms.
  • Wear loose clothing so you can easily remove your shirt.
  • Remove jewelry.
  • Bring copies of previous mammograms and reports with you. If you have them done in the same place each time, they will have results from prior years. The doctor can compare the old images to the new ones.
  • Describe any breast problems to the technician before the exam.

Description of Test

You will stand in front of a special x-ray machine. It has a platform to place your breast on. The technician will adjust the height of the platform. One breast will be lifted and placed between special plates that hold film. The plate is brought close to the platform and compresses the breast. This allows for a clearer image. The exam will cause some discomfort. Tell the technician if you feel any pain.

At least 2 pictures of each breast are taken. For one picture, you face toward the platform and the image is taken looking down at the breast. For a second picture, you stand beside the machine for a side view. Extra images may be needed if you have implants. Your doctor may also need more images if this test is being used to help make a diagnosis.

After Test    TOP

You will wait in the facility until the x-rays are developed. More images may be needed. You can go home after the exam.

How Long Will It Take?    TOP

30-45 minutes

Will It Hurt?    TOP

You may feel some discomfort and pain.

Results    TOP

The radiologist will look at the images and may speak with you at the end of the exam. You will usually get your results within 7 days. If you do not, call and ask for the results.

Your doctor will have a report and either send you a letter or talk to you about your condition. The next test is usually done in 1-2 years if all is normal.

The test can sometimes find things that look like cancer, but are not. If something is noticed on the test, you may need to have other tests done, like an ultrasound or a breast biopsy. This will help find out if there is a real problem or if all is fine.

Also, like all screening tests, the test will not detect every single abnormality.

Call Your Doctor    TOP

After the test, call your doctor if you have:

  • Changes in a breast, including a lump or thickening
  • Skin discoloration or discharge from the nipple

RESOURCES:

American Cancer Society
http://www.cancer.org
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
http://www.acog.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Breast Cancer Society of Canada
http://www.bcsc.ca
Radiology for Patients
http://www.radiology-info.org

References:

Mammograms. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed July 26, 2013.
Mammography (breast imaging). Radiological Society of North America Radiology Info website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed May 7, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2013.
Mammography for breast cancer screening. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated July 2, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2013.
8/12/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed...: The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Practice bulletin no.122: Breast cancer screening. Obstet Gynecol. 2011;118(2 Pt 1):372-382. Reaffirmed 2014.
Last reviewed May 2015 by Andrea Chisholm; Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 5/22/2018

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