Mammography 101


Mammograms play a key role in early breast cancer detection and help decrease breast cancer deaths. The goal is to detect breast cancer before clinical signs are noticeable. Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. A mammogram is an x-ray that allows a qualified physician specialist (radiologist) to examine the breast tissue for any suspicious areas.

  • The breast is exposed to a small dose of iodizing radiation that produces an image of the breast tissue.
  • During a mammogram, your breasts are compressed between two firm surfaces to spread out the breast tissue. Some women find this uncomfortable, but tolerable, for the brief time it takes to have the mammogram.
  • An x-ray captures black and white images of your breasts that are displayed on a computer screen and examined by a radiologist who looks for signs of cancer. If the mammogram shows an abnormal area of the breast, your doctor may order additional tests offering clearer, more detailed images of that area (lumps are usually non-cancerous and can be caused by fatty cells, calcium, or other conditions like cysts).

“Mammography can detect cancer early when it’s most treatable and be treated less invasively, which not only saves lives but helps preserve quality of life,” said Dr. Jackie Sweeney, a radiologist at St. Elizabeth Healthcare who specializes in mammography. “The chance of dying from breast cancer has decreased by greater that 30 percent since 1990, in part because of high-quality mammography.”

General guidelines (from the American Cancer Society)

  • Women 40 and older with an “average risk” should have mammograms every one or two years.
  • Women who are younger than 40 with a “high risk” for breast cancer should ask their healthcare professional whether mammograms are advisable before age 40 and how often to have them.


Preparing for your mammogram

  • Choose an “ACR (American College of Radiologists) Breast Centers of Excellence” certified mammogram facility or its mobile mammography van to schedule your mammogram. Mobile mammography vans travel throughout the tri-state area to community sites in order to provide convenient, efficient access to mammograms. Look in the paper or call your local hospital to learn when a van will be in your area.
  • Schedule the test for a time when your breasts are least likely to be tender (usually during the week after your menstrual period).
  • Bring your prior mammogram images with you (if you’re going to a new facility) so that the radiologist can compare them with your new images.
  • Don’t use deodorant before your mammogram (deodorants, antiperspirants, powders, lotions, creams or perfumes under your arms or on your breasts may contain metallic particles that could be visible on your mammogram and cause confusion).


Mammogram results

  • Results are usually called or mailed to you and your physician within 30 days of the mammogram. Notify the facility where you had the mammogram if you do not hear results within 30 days.


Note: If you are unable to afford a mammogram, contact your local hospital to learn about grants/funds that may be available to help cover the cost of your mammogram.