Mammography - What to Expect

October 22, 2012
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This podcast explains what to expect during a mammogram.


You're listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the world's leading professional organization for doctors that care for people with cancer.

Today we’ll talk about what to expect when you have a mammogram.

Let’s start by talking about what mammography is, and then we’ll cover how to prepare for this type of test and questions to ask before having a mammogram. A mammogram is a type of x-ray that doctors use to look for an abnormality or a tumor in the breast.

There are two main types of mammography: a screening mammogram and a diagnostic mammogram. Screening mammography is used to look for breast cancer in women who have no symptoms of the disease. Diagnostic mammography is similar, but it means that more pictures of the breast are taken during the test. If a screening mammogram finds a problem, then a diagnostic mammogram may be the next step. It can also be used if a person has felt a breast lump or other symptoms.

Before you schedule a mammogram, be sure to talk with your doctor about any breast-related symptoms or problems you may have. In addition, tell your doctor if you’re pregnant or breast-feeding.

Consider scheduling your mammogram within two weeks after the end of your menstrual period. During that time, a woman’s breasts tend to be less sensitive. You can also reduce breast sensitivity and make the procedure more comfortable by avoiding caffeine for a week before the test and taking an over-the-counter pain medication on the testing day.

On the day of the test, don’t use deodorant, antiperspirant, powder, lotion or perfume on your breasts or under your arms. Residue from these products can create spots on the x-ray.

When you arrive for the test, you will be asked to undress from the waist up and put on a hospital gown that opens in the front. You’ll also need to remove any jewelry that will interfere with the x-ray.

Mammograms are performed by a technician who is trained to operate the mammography equipment. After you change into the hospital gown, you will be taken to the examination room. You and the technician will be alone in the room during the procedure. Afterwards, a doctor called a radiologist will study the images for any irregularities or tumors. A radiologist is a medical doctor who specializes in interpreting imaging tests to diagnose disease.

Before the test, tell the technician if you have breast implants, scars from previous breast surgery, or an area of special concern in your breast. This will help the technician perform the test and help the radiologist read the images. If you’ve had prior surgery for breast cancer, the technician may tape small metal balls to your skin near your scar to show the radiologist where you have the highest risk of recurrence. 

During the test, you will stand in front of the mammography machine. The technician will place one of your breasts between two plastic plates and press the plates together for a few seconds to take an x-ray. This compression holds the tissue still and makes clearer images. A screening mammogram will take about two images of each breast, and a diagnostic mammogram will take several images of each breast. When the exam is complete, you will need to wait about five minutes while the technician develops the x-rays and makes sure that the pictures are clear and readable. The technologist may need to take more images after the first set is reviewed.

Mammography takes ten to fifteen minutes, but you can expect to be at the facility for up to an hour. The extra time will be spent registering, changing clothes, and waiting for the technician to double-check that the images are clear and readable. Once the test is over, you can immediately resume all your normal activities, including driving.   

Before your mammogram, consider asking your doctor the following questions:

Question one: Who will perform the mammogram, and where will it take place?

Question two: Does the facility specialize in mammography?

Question three: Should I bring previous mammogram results with me to the testing center?

Question four: When will I get the results, and who will explain them to me?

And, question five: What happens next if the results are unclear or suggest cancer?

Be sure to ask your doctor any other questions you may have about preparing for and having a mammogram. Knowing what to expect before the procedure may help you feel more comfortable.

For more information on this topic, contact your doctor or visit Cancer.Net is supported by the Conquer Cancer Foundation, which is working to create a world free from the fear of cancer by funding breakthrough research, sharing knowledge with physicians and patients worldwide, and supporting initiatives to ensure that all people have access to high-quality cancer care. Thank you for listening to this Cancer.Net Podcast.