A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can find changes in the breast when a lump is too small for you or your doctor to feel. Some women put off getting a mammogram because they think it will be painful, harmful, or costly. But this screening is safe, quick, and effective. And it could save your life. You may have your mammogram using standard X-ray or digital X-ray. Standard X-rays are printed on film and viewed on a light box. Digital images are recorded and viewed on a computer. Some studies have shown that digital mammograms are more accurate.
The benefits and limitations of mammography vary based on factors like age and personal risk. Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Talk with your doctor about any risk factors you have before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often you should get them.
To be prepared, ask your health care provider to explain what will happen before you have the mammogram. In order to get a clear picture, a health care provider firmly compresses each breast against an X-ray plate and takes the X-rays. Two different X-rays will be done. The mammogram takes only a few minutes.
You will feel some pressure and perhaps some discomfort during the mammogram, but it lasts less than one minute. If you are still having menstrual periods, schedule your mammogram to be done a few days after your period ends. Your breasts are less sensitive at this time. There is a very small but present risk associated with exposure to radiation.
If a mammogram shows a lump or other breast change, you will need further tests to find out if is cancerous. Like most tests, mammograms are not perfect. In some cases, the mammogram may find something that is not cancer. But getting the screening is worth it. Mammograms can find cancer at an early stage, when the cancer is small and has not spread, and when treatment is more effective.