Did you skip some of your routine healthcare appointments during the pandemic? It happened to many of us, but right now is the best time to get back on track with annual cancer screenings — including mammograms. Diana Kaufman, MD, UnityPoint Health, answers common questions to help you feel more comfortable scheduling your next mammogram screening.
What is a Mammogram Screening?
A mammogram uses X-rays to look for any issues in breasts. They’re done for two reasons:
- Screening test. This checks for breast cancer before signs or symptoms appear.
- Diagnostic test. This checks lumps, or other symptoms, you or your doctor have found.
Mammograms aim to catch cancers at an early stage, so treatment is more effective with better outcomes.
Who Should Get a Mammogram?
It's never too early to start talking to your doctor about breast health. The age and frequency for your mammogram depends on a variety of personal health and family history factors. Together, you and your doctor will make the best decision for your health.
What are Breast Cancer Risk Factors?
You may be at high risk for breast cancer due to things you can’t control — a family history of breast cancer, genetics, aging, starting your period before age 12 or going into menopause after 55.
“We often hear some individuals don’t think a mammogram is needed, because they don’t have a family history. However, statistics show 85% of breast cancers are in women without any history,” Dr. Kaufman says.
While, unfortunately, a lot of what causes breast cancer is out of our control, there are some ways to reduce the risks, including keeping up a healthy lifestyle by watching your weight, exercising regularly and reducing your alcohol intake.
Are Mammograms Painful?
During a mammogram, one breast at a time is placed on a flat plate and compressed with a paddle. The breasts are compressed to better allow doctors to see through the tissue. Once the machine takes a couple of pictures, it’ll release. The process is repeated to get a second view of the breast, and then the same thing happens for the opposite breast. Each compression is short, usually lasting between five and 30 seconds.
“Everyone experiences mammograms differently. While you’ll feel pressure, take comfort in knowing it’s quick and could help save your life,” Dr. Kaufman says.
Does Breast Size Matter for Mammograms?
“Breast size, large or small, isn’t an issue for mammography machines. Men can even get mammograms. There are options to swap in different sized paddles, if needed,” Dr. Kaufman says.
6 Tips for a Successful and Comfortable Mammogram
- Skip daily products. Powders, lotions, perfumes and deodorants have substances that can show up as white spots on the X-ray, making it more difficult to read.
- Consider your schedule. If you’re still having menstrual periods, try scheduling your test right after your period is complete. Usually, breasts are less tender then.
- Wear a two-piece outfit. Leave the dresses in the closet on mammogram day. You’ll need to undress from the waste up for the screening.
- Don’t wear jewelry. You’ll have to remove earrings and necklaces, so it’s best to leave them home, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything. Rings are OK.
- Reduce the caffeine. Caffeine can make your breasts more sensitive. Try skipping it the day of your test to help improve your comfort.
- Take note of recent vaccines. Vaccines often get your immune system working, which can cause lymph nodes to swell. This is normal. No need to make any changes to your mammogram schedule, simply tell your screening tech of any recent vaccinations.
What about Mammogram Results?
Normal Mammogram Results
If you get a normal mammogram result, continue with yearly mammograms, or follow the schedule that’s suggested by your doctor. During each mammogram, your health care team will compare your results to past mammogram images to help see the changes in your breasts over time.
Abnormal Mammogram Results
An abnormal mammogram result doesn’t mean you have breast cancer. But you’ll need to have additional tests, so a doctor can get a better understanding of what changes are in the breast. You might be referred to additional specialists to help see what’s going on in your breasts.
What is Breast Density and What Does it Mean?
Your results may also include information about your breast density.
If you have dense breasts, which is pretty common, you’re at a slightly higher risk of getting breast cancer. Breast density may also make it harder for radiologists to read your mammogram. In that case, additional types of screenings, like a breast MRI or an ultrasound might be recommended to get a better view of your breasts.
“Breast density is very subjective and can change from year to year and radiologist to radiologist. It can also charge with your weight, exercise levels, hormonal status and even your age. So, if you notice changes in your breast density, don’t be alarmed,” Dr. Kaufman says.
Getting a mammogram is one of the easiest ways YOU can help prevent and detect breast cancer early. For additional information on mammograms, talk to your primary care provider.