Your doctor uses two important screening tools to monitor your breasts for cancer: in-office breast exams and mammography, a type of imaging. Mammograms work by using low-energy x-rays to examine your breasts for changes.
These tools work together to effectively screen for breast cancer and other abnormalities. Mammograms can detect breast lumps that are too small for you or your doctor to feel. This is important because lumps are easiest to treat when they’re diagnosed early. Depending on personal or family risk factors, yearly mammograms are recommended beginning at age 40. Discuss with your doctor what works best for you.
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How Does a Mammogram Work?
Mammograms can reveal abnormal tissues inside the breast.
A mammographer will use a special x-ray machine for your mammogram. The dose of radiation from a mammogram is lower than other types of x-rays.
The mammographer will compress your breast between two plates that flatten and spread your breast tissue apart. This compression allows for better visibility on the mammogram. Many may find this pressure uncomfortable, but each x-ray lasts for only a few seconds.
The standard screening mammogram only requires two images of each breast.
If your mammogram shows possible abnormalities, a radiologist will give a report describing the area of concern along with any recommended additional imaging.
Screening Mammograms vs. Diagnostic Mammograms
Your doctor will order screening mammograms for you at regular intervals. These tests are ordered when there are no breast cancer symptoms.
The goal of a screening mammogram is to make sure you don’t have any signs of breast cancer. This includes areas of calcium deposits in the breast known as calcifications. These deposits may suggest precancerous breast changes.
Screening mammograms can also rule out tumors that are too small for you or your doctor to feel.
If your screening mammogram is normal, you will usually receive your results in several days via U.S. mail. You will also receive results through a patient portal like MyUPMC.
If your screening mammogram result is abnormal, you will receive a phone call to schedule a diagnostic mammogram. Diagnostic mammograms require additional views of each breast.
Other possible reasons why you might need a diagnostic mammogram include:
- A breast lump.
- Nipple discharge.
- Nipple inversion.
- Change in skin color or texture.
- Change in size or shape of breast.
How Long Does a Mammogram Take?
For a screening mammogram, you can typically expect 2 or 3 x-rays of each breast. The total visit should take about 30 minutes. This includes time to complete a breast health questionnaire and to change into and out of a hospital gown.
For a diagnostic mammogram, allow 2 to 3 hours for the visit. The process takes extra time because the mammographer will take more images of your breast. The technologist will pay special attention to the area of concern your screening mammogram identified.
The radiologist will interpret the images while you wait. You will learn your exam results before you leave. If the diagnostic test reinforces abnormal findings, the radiologist may recommend a breast biopsy or other testing.
Haven’t scheduled your mammogram yet? Some UPMC patients are now able to schedule mammograms online. Visit our online scheduling tool to see if you are eligible
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
American Cancer Society. Mammogram Basics. Link
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