Mammograms spark fear or anxiety in some people’s minds — but the fact is, mammograms save lives. Read on to learn more about the importance of scheduling routine mammograms (and how to find a mammogram provider near you), as well as the importance of performing self-exams.
A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. Doctors use them to look for unusual lumps in breast tissue that could indicate breast cancer. With early detection, breast cancer can be up to 99 percent curable, so regular mammograms are a key defense against the disease. The American Cancer Society currently recommends that women and other people with breasts start annual mammograms as early as age 40 (and no later than 45). Those over 55 can be screened every 2 years. But other factors, such as a family history of breast cancer, may lead your doctor to recommend having your first mammogram and getting on a mammogram schedule at a younger age.
Transgender women and others who take medicines to increase female hormones may have a greater risk for breast cancer and should discuss mammograms with their primary care provider. For transgender men and other people who were assigned female at birth, a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) and taking male hormones remove most risk for breast cancer. Those who have not had a bilateral mastectomy should be screened for breast cancer based on current guidelines for cisgender women.
While it is rare, cisgender men who have unusual screenings or a family history of breast cancer may also need routine mammograms.
Physical breast exams are typically done during routine physical exams with a general practitioner or OB-GYN, and a doctor may recommend getting a mammogram if they find anything uncommon, no matter your age.
(Learn more about necessary health screenings in “Women’s Health: Screenings by Decade,” and how to prepare for an annual physical in “Taking Charge of Your Health: How to Prepare for a Routine Checkup.”)
The mammogram process is pretty straightforward. If you menstruate, doctors recommend that you schedule your appointment for the week after your menstrual cycle; the scan may be more uncomfortable the week before, due to hormone production in your body. At your appointment, you’ll be asked to undress from the waist up, and you’ll be given a wrap or cover-up. One at a time, you will put each breast on a platform; then the X-ray technician will lower a plastic plate that flattens your breast — spreading out the tissue so it is easier to detect signs of cancer.
How a mammogram feels varies from patient to patient. Some patients do not feel anything. Some people do report pain during the procedure. There are many factors that may contribute to how a mammogram feels, such as where you are in your menstrual cycle and the size of your breasts. It is common to feel minor discomfort during the X-ray procedure and some mild soreness for a short time afterward.
A mammogram typically lasts 15 to 20 minutes.
• Schedule the test for a time when your breasts are least likely to be tender. If you menstruate, this is usually during the week after your period.
• Don't use deodorant before your mammogram. Avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, powders, lotions, creams or perfumes under your arms or on your breasts. Metallic particles in powders and deodorants could be show upon your mammogram and cause confusion.
• Bring prior mammogram images if you are going to a new facility. Ask to have prior mammograms placed on a CD that you can bring with you to your appointment, or have images sent in advance, so the radiologist can compare past results with new results.
Scheduling a mammogram is now easier than ever. Use the Carbon Health Mammogram Finder to find a mammogram location near you. You can also speak with your primary care provider, who will likely refer you to someone called a mammographer. Mammographers are people who are trained to operate mammography X-ray machines. Your results are then analyzed by a radiologist and given to your doctor. Doctors will schedule follow-up appointments within a few weeks to discuss your results and any next steps that need to be taken.
Mammograms are not foolproof: they can’t detect all cancers (a cancer may be missed if it’s too small or is located in an area that mammography has trouble viewing), for instance, and not all breast cancers detected by mammography can be cured. Primary risks of mammography are:
• Mammograms expose you to a very low dose of radiation. The dose is extremely low, however, and for most people the benefits of regular mammograms outweigh the risks posed by this amount of radiation.
• Having a mammogram may lead to additional testing. If something unexpected is found by your mammogram, you may need other tests, such as additional imaging tests like an ultrasound, or a procedure (called a biopsy) during which a small sample of breast tissue is removed for laboratory testing.
The results of your mammogram will be sent to your healthcare provider, who will contact you to discuss your results. If you don’t hear from your provider within ten business days, call them or the mammogram facility — note that your provider should contact you even if your mammogram was normal.
The mammography facility should also provide you with an easy-to-understand summary of your mammogram results within 30 days — or as quickly as possible if the results suggest an abnormality or a cause for concern. Be sure to go over the results with your provider; they should help you understand anything that is not clear to you.
Self-exams are another important way to detect breast abnormalities early. Self-exams do not replace the need for annual mammograms or physical exams by your healthcare provider. Performing self-exams will help you understand your own “normal” and help you develop necessary preventive and screening habits.
First, perform a visual exam, looking for anything that seems abnormal, including breast shape and discharge. Then lie on your back and perform a physical self-check, using your fingers to feel for lumps or other things that might be abnormal. The Keep A Breast Foundation has a free app called Keep A Breast that has two helpful features: it lets you keep track of your self-exams and anything that might be found, and if you find something you’d like to discuss with a healthcare provider, it will connect you to one at Carbon Health.
One of Carbon Health’s missions is removing barriers to good health. We believe that by easing access to healthcare providers familiar with breast cancer screening, we can calm anxiety and reduce the potentially overwhelming “what-if” feelings that may prevent people from scheduling mammograms and other routine preventive healthcare appointments. If you have any concerns about mammograms or breast exams, you can schedule a virtual visit via the Carbon Health website or app.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.