What You Need to Know About Mammograms
A mammogram is a critical breast cancer diagnostic tool. It’s safe and effective, and extremely useful for the early detection of the illness.
Keep reading for more about what a mammogram is, how it works and why you need one.
What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is a procedure in which X-ray imaging is used to examine the breast. The term comes from the Latin word mamma (breast) and the Greek gramma (picture). In other words, a mammogram is a picture of your breast tissue.
The procedure is the most effective method for detecting breast cancer. It allows for the identification of breast cancers, tumors and cysts long before they’re able to be felt in the breast tissue.
Mammograms are used for breast cancer detection and diagnosis in women who have breast problems (e.g. lumps, pain or nipple discharge) as well as those who have no ostensible issues.
Based on this distinction, mammograms are divided into two categories:
- Screening mammograms: Women who have no signs or symptoms of breast cancer undergo screening mammograms to detect changes in the breast.
- Diagnostic mammogram: As the name suggests, diagnostic mammograms are used to evaluate and diagnose abnormalities detected in a screening mammogram or unusual breast changes that were detected before the X-ray examination.
These X-rays are great for detecting abnormalities in the breast because any areas of tissue that are denser than the normal breast tissue (like cancer, tumours and cysts) are easy to identify.
How does a mammogram work?
Now that we’ve answered the question ‘What is a mammogram?’, you’ll likely be curious about how exactly a doctor or radiographer goes about X-raying your breasts.
Unlike other types of X-rays, you won’t lay down on a table and cover other parts of your body with a lead apron. Instead, you’ll stand in front of a specialised X-ray machine that has a platform at chest height.
The technician will place your breast (one at a time) on a plastic plate and another plate will be lowered onto your breast. The plates will flatten your breast to hold it still while the X-ray is taken. This process is repeated twice on each breast to get a top and side view.
Once the procedure is complete and the radiographer has captured the images of your breasts, the X-rays will be sent off to a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in reading and interpreting these scans) for analysis.
The radiologist sends their report to your doctor. If there are any abnormalities that could signal breast cancer, you’ll likely be referred for a biopsy.
Do you need a mammogram?
Although there are various methods that can be used to screen for breast cancer, mammograms are the most effective.
There are different guidelines and recommendations around who should have a mammogram, but the general rule is that women aged 45 and older should be screened at least once every two years.
This is because your risk of developing breast cancer increases significantly as you age. According to the American Cancer Society, 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the USA each year are over the age of 45 and about 43% of that number are 65 or older.
There are other factors that will affect whether you need to have a mammogram, too. Women who have tested positive for the BRCA mutation, those who have previously survived breast cancer and those who have a family history of the illness are recommended to start mammography screening earlier and have more frequent exams.
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines and you should talk to your healthcare provider about when you should start getting mammograms as well as how often you should be screened.
Are mammograms safe?
Mammography has been the main method for detecting and diagnosing breast cancer since the mid-1960s and has been shown to be safe.
Although a 2016 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that approximately 125 in every 100,000 women may develop breast cancer as a result of radiation exposure from the mammogram. However, the procedure helped 986 women in the test group to survive the illness as a result of the screening.
The amount of radiation you’re exposed to during a mammogram is much lower than a normal X-ray. On average, you’ll receive 0.4 millisieverts or mSv (the measure of a radiation dose) during a typical mammogram. That’s roughly the same amount of exposure you’ll get from your natural surroundings over about seven weeks.
The benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to having a mammogram. Side effects are almost non-existent and the most common report among women being that the procedure is uncomfortable.
How often should I get a mammogram?
Generally, women over the age of 45 should get a mammogram every one to two years. However, this will vary depending on your genetics, family history and history of cancer. It’s best to consult with your doctor to figure out how often you should get a mammogram.
How do I prepare for a mammogram?
You don’t need to do much to prepare for a mammogram. Be sure to wash your breasts and armpits well and avoid the use of deodorant, antiperspirant, lotions, creams, powders and perfumes around the breast area as these products can affect the mammogram images.
On what day of the menstrual cycle is it better to have a mammogram?
Your menstrual cycle affects your breast tissue. At times when oestrogen is high (around days 12 to 16 of your cycle), your breasts will be more sensitive. When progesterone peaks (around days 21 to 28) your breast lobules increase in size and this can interfere with the mammogram imaging. It’s best to schedule your mammogram outside of these periods.
What can you do instead of a mammogram?
Mammograms are the most effective method for detecting breast cancer and there isn’t a substitute for them. However, you can supplement your mammograms with other screening tactics like self-examinations, MRIs and ultrasounds. You can also use thermal screening devices.