Discusses mammogram, an X-ray test of the breasts used to screen for breast problems. Covers at what ages women should have a mammogram. Discusses how it is done and how to prepare for it. Covers possible results.
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that is used to screen for breast cancer. Mammograms can find tumors that are too small for you or your doctor
is most easily treated and cured when it is discovered in an early stage. Mammograms do not prevent breast cancer or reduce a woman's risk of developing
cancer. But for women ages 40 to 70, mammograms may help reduce deaths from breast
Your doctor may recommend testing at a younger age if you have risk factors for breast cancer.
A mammogram that appears to detect a cancer, when in fact a
cancer is not present (false-positive results), can occur at
any age but is more likely to occur in younger women. About 5% to 10% of
screening mammograms will require more testing. This may include another
mammogram of specific breast tissue or another test, such as
ultrasound. Most of these tests will show no cancer is
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
Screen for breast cancer in women without
Detect breast cancer in women with symptoms. Symptoms of
breast cancer may include a lump or thickening in the breast, nipple discharge,
or dimpling of the skin on one area of the breast.
Locate an area
of suspicious breast tissue to remove for examination under a microscope
(biopsy) when an abnormality is found.
How To Prepare
If you have previously had a mammogram
done at another clinic, have the results sent or bring them with you to your
Tell your doctor if you:
Are or might be pregnant. A mammogram is an
X-ray test with exposure to low-dose radiation and is not done for routine
screening during pregnancy.
Are breast-feeding. A mammogram may not
provide clear results in breasts that contain milk.
implants. Breast implants require a modified mammogram method.
previously had a breast biopsy. Knowing the location of scar tissue will help
radiologist read your mammogram accurately.
On the day of the mammogram, do not use any deodorant,
perfume, powders, or ointments on your breasts. The residue left on your skin
by these substances may interfere with the X-rays.
If you are
still having menstrual periods, you may want to have your mammogram done within
2 weeks after your menstrual period ends. The procedure will be more
comfortable, especially if your breasts become tender before your period
How It Is Done
A mammogram is done by a radiology
technologist or mammogram technologist. The X-ray pictures (mammograms) are
interpreted by a doctor who specializes in evaluating X-rays
You will need to remove any jewelry that might
interfere with the X-ray picture. You will need to take off your clothes above
the waist, and you will be given a cloth or paper gown to use during the test.
If you are concerned about an area of your breast, show the technologist so
that the area can be noted.
You usually stand during a mammogram. One at a time, your breasts will be placed on a flat
plate that contains the X-ray film. Another plate is then pressed firmly
against your breast to help flatten out the breast tissue. Very firm
compression is needed to obtain high-quality pictures. You may be asked to lift
your arm. For a few
seconds while the X-ray picture is being taken, you will need to hold your
breath. Usually at least two pictures are taken of each breast: one from the
top and one from the side.
You may be in the mammogram clinic for
up to an hour. The mammogram itself takes about 10 to 15 minutes. You will be
asked to wait (usually about 5 minutes) until the X-rays are developed, in case
repeat pictures need to be taken. In some clinics and hospitals, X-ray pictures
can be viewed immediately on a computer screen (digitally).
How It Feels
A mammogram is often uncomfortable but
rarely extremely painful. If you have sensitive or fragile skin, or a skin
condition, let the technician know before you have your exam. If you have
menstrual periods, the procedure is more comfortable when done within 2 weeks
after your period has ended.
The X-ray plate will feel cold when
you place your breast on it. Having your breasts flattened and squeezed is
usually uncomfortable. But it is necessary to flatten out the breast tissue to
obtain the best pictures.
A mammogram may help find cancer early. But finding cancer early doesn't always save lives. In some cases the cancer will have already spread to other parts of the body.
A mammogram may appear to detect a cancer even when a cancer is not present (false-positive results). This can occur at any age but is more likely with younger women. False-positive results can lead to emotional distress and unneeded tests and treatments.
A mammogram may miss finding breast cancer even when it is there (false-negative results). This is more likely to happen with young women who have dense breasts. False-negative results can keep a woman from getting treatment and can give her a false sense of security.
Also, mammograms may find certain types of breast cancer that would never cause symptoms or threaten a woman's life. But doctors cannot tell what kinds of cancer will cause problems, so all cancers are treated. This means that women may end up having tests and treatments they don't need. These can cause harm.
There is always a slight risk of damage to
cells or tissue from being exposed to any radiation, including the very low
levels of radiation used for this test. But the risk of damage from the X-rays
is very low compared with the potential benefits of the test.
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that is used to screen for breast cancer. Mammogram results are usually available within 10 days. It is not
uncommon to be asked to return for another test so an additional view of an
area in question can be obtained.
In the United
States, facilities that perform mammograms send the results directly to your
doctor's office and must send you a copy of the test results
(written in language that is easily understood) within 30 days.
looks normal. No unusual growths, lumps, or other types of abnormal tissue are
seen. The glands that produce milk for breast-feeding and the tubes (ducts)
through which milk flows appear normal.
An abnormal growth, lump, or other type of tissue may be
seen. A cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign) tumor may be seen. One
or more fluid-filled pockets (cysts) may be seen.
Bits of calcium
(calcifications) may be seen. Tiny calcifications (microcalcifications) often
occur in areas where cells are growing very rapidly (such as in a cancerous
tumor). Larger calcifications (macrocalcifications) are usually normal and
noncancerous in women older than age 50.
A specific area needs to be
looked at again. This is a very common result for many women and does not mean
that the area is abnormal or cancerous.
Most abnormalities found during a mammogram are not
breast cancer. But many women who have regular screening mammograms need more
tests to investigate any abnormalities found during a mammogram. If an area of
your breast tissue appears to be a concern during a mammogram, other tests may
What Affects the Test
Reasons you may not be able to
have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:
Deodorant, perfume, powders, or ointments
applied to the breasts or under the arms before the test. They may interfere
with the X-ray pictures.
Breast implants or scar tissue from
previous breast surgery. This may make a mammogram harder to
A mammogram is not usually done if you are:
Pregnant, because the radiation could damage
your developing baby (fetus). If a mammogram is absolutely
needed for diagnosing a problem, a lead apron will be placed over your
abdomen to shield your baby from exposure to the
Breast-feeding, because breasts that contain milk are very
difficult to examine.
What To Think About
Most abnormalities found during a mammogram are
breast cancer. But many women who have regular
screening mammograms need more tests to investigate any abnormalities
found during a mammogram. If an area of your breast tissue appears to be a
concern during a mammogram, other tests such as an ultrasound may be done.
Mammogram results are harder to
interpret in women before
menopause because breast tissue in younger women is
denser than in older women. Mammograms may be less accurate in
mammogram allows your doctor to view different parts of the breast
without taking more images. Digital mammograms have the same overall
accuracy as standard mammograms. The procedure in which a digital mammogram is done is the
same as a standard mammogram—each procedure takes about the same amount of
time, and breast compression is needed for both. Images from a digital mammogram
can be magnified and stored electronically.
A digital mammogram may be done along with digital breast tomosynthesis to make a three-dimensional picture of the breast.
If you come from a family where women have had breast cancer
earlier than age 40, talk to your doctor about what age to start screening. If
you have a very strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you may want
to have a breast cancer (BRCA) gene test. To learn more, see the topic Breast Cancer (BRCA) Gene Test.
Other Places To Get Help
NIH: National Cancer Institute (U.S.)
www.cancer.gov (or https://livehelp.cancer.gov/app/chat/chat_launch for live help online)
Other Works Consulted
American Cancer Society (2012). American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/Healthy/FindCancerEarly/CancerScreeningGuidelines/american-cancer-society-guidelines-for-the-early-detection-of-cancer.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). Breast cancer screening. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 122. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118: 372–382.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for breast cancer. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsbrca.htm.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.