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Mammograms: What, When and Why?

Mammograms. No, this is not a made-up word! Mammograms, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an x-ray picture of the breast. Doctors use this picture to look for early signs of cancer and other abnormalities. Learn more about what this process looks like, when you should start getting them and why they’re important.

What happens during a mammogram?

To get a mammogram, you stand in front of an x-ray machine that is adjusted to your height. A technologist will then place your breast on a plastic plate while another plate firmly presses your breast from above. This allows the breast to flatten while the x-ray is being taken. 

Now you may be thinking, “they’re going to smash my breast in between two plastic plates? Forget it!” However while most women say this process is uncomfortable, it does not often cause extreme pain. Different factors can influence the level of discomfort felt during a mammogram. The National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends patients who are sensitive should schedule their mammograms a week after their menstrual cycle so that the breasts are less tender. If you want to proactively prepare for the discomfort, ask your doctor if you can take acetaminophen an hour before the x-ray is performed. 

When should I start getting mammograms and how often?

The American Cancer Society recommends women ages 40 to 44 start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms and continue with an annual screening until they reach 55. At this time, women can switch to mammograms every two years if they wish or continue with annual screenings. You don’t have to wait until your 40s to start being proactive about your breast health. All women can become familiar with giving themselves breast exams and feeling for any abnormal lumps or protrusions. 

If you have a family history of breast cancer, this recommendation may change. Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends women with a family history of breast cancer can begin five years before the earliest age at diagnosis in the family. For example, if your mother was diagnosed when she was 35, you can begin screening when you are 30.

Why is a mammogram important?

Mammograms are the best chance of diagnosing breast cancer in its early stages. The earlier treatment can start for breast cancer the better. It’s important to follow the annual schedule for mammogram screenings because your breasts can change from year to year. While self breast exams are a good practice to have, breast cancer can’t always be felt in its early stages. If it’s time for you to begin annual mammograms, schedule an appointment and check on your breast health. If you have questions or concerns regarding your family history, ask your provider. We’re here to help!