Mammography is an x-ray procedure that uses low-dose radiation to create an
image of breast tissue. Mammography is the best way to find breast cancer early,
because it can detect breast lumps up to two years before they can be felt.
Finding a lump early significantly improves a woman's chance of successful
The American Cancer Society recommends that women have a baseline screening
mammogram between the ages of 35 and 40 and receive a mammogram once a year
after age 40. Women at high risk should have mammograms more often. The risk of
breast cancer increases as a woman ages, if she has never had children, or if
she had her first child after age 30. Studies also suggest that the risk may be
higher for women who eat high-fat diets and those who smoke cigarettes. If you
are not sure how frequently you should obtain a mammogram, consult your
It is important to remember that 80% of breast cancers occur in women with no
risk factors. One in eight American women will develop breast cancer in her
lifetime, and another woman is newly diagnosed with the disease every 3 minutes.
The three steps to detecting breast cancer early are:
- Breast self-exams every month beginning at age 18.
- Clinical breast exams by a health care professional every three years between the ages of 18 and 39, and every year
from age 40.
- Screening mammograms annually from age 40.
The federal government regulates the personnel, equipment and facilities
involved in providing mammographic services. Under the Mammography Quality
Standards Act, all facilities providing mammography exams must be certified by
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The facility where you receive your
mammogram is required to display an FDA certificate showing it has met the
federal quality standards.
Try to schedule your mammogram just after your menstrual period, when your
breasts are less tender. Wear a two-piece outfit on the day of your mammogram,
so you will have to remove only your top. Don't apply deodorant, talcum powder
or lotion under mammograms you've had before. Schedule at least 40 to 60 minutes
for the exam, which includes time for preparation, processing the mammographic
images and obtaining additional images, if necessary. The actual exposure time
is very short.
Before your examination, a mammographer will explain the procedure to you and
answer any questions you might have. A mammographer, also known as a
radiologic technologist, is a skilled medical professional who has received
specialized education in the areas of radiation protection, anatomy, patient
care, radiation exposure, mammographic positioning and mammographic techniques.
Be sure to let the mammographer know if you have experienced any changes in your
breasts, especially if you have felt any suspicious lumps. Also let the
mammographer know if you have had previous breast surgery or if you have breast
During the Examination
The mammographer will ask you to undress from the waist up and stand in front
of the mammography unit, a special type of x-ray machine. She will place one of
your breasts on a small platform attached to the machine. The platform can be
raised or lowered to match your height. Your breast then will be gradually
compressed between the platform and a clear plastic plate. Compression spreads
and thins the breast tissue. It is needed to ensure a clear picture and to
reduce the amount of radiation necessary for the x-ray image. Two images will be
taken of the breast, one from the top and one from the side. The examination
then will be repeated for the other breast.
Compression may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn't hurt. The actual time of
compression is only a few seconds. If you are worried about discomfort, tell
your physician. You may be advised to take a mild over-the-counter pain reliever
about an hour before your mammogram.
Following your mammography examination, you will be asked to wait a few
minutes while the x-ray images are processed. The mammographer then will
determine if the images are technically acceptable and if additional views are
The mammography images then will be given to a radiologist - a physician who specializes in the diagnostic interpretation
of medical images. Under federal regulations, the radiologist must be
experienced in reviewing mammographic images.
After your images have been reviewed by a radiologist, your personal
physician will receive a report of the findings. A report also will be sent
directly to you, in language that is easy to understand, within 30 days after
The radiation that you are exposed to during a mammogram, like the radiation
produced during any other x-ray procedure, passes through you immediately. You
are not "radioactive," and it is not necessary to take any special precautions
following your examination.
The above patient information provided by the American Society of Radiologic
Technologist (ASRT) with permission. www.asrt.org