A mammogram is an X-ray image of your breast. It is used to find and diagnose breast disease in women. Your healthcare provider may order a mammogram if you have a breast problem such as a lump, pain, or discharge from a nipple. Your provider may also order one as a screening test. The test can look for breast cancers, noncancerous or benign tumors, and cysts before they can be felt.
If a mammogram shows an area in your breast that may be cancer, your provider can remove a sample of tissue. This is called a biopsy. Your provider may remove the tissue by needle or during surgery. The tissue will be looked at under a microscope to find out if it is cancer.
X-rays use a small amount of radiation to create images of your bones and internal organs. X-rays are most often used to find bone or joint problems, or to check the heart and lungs. Mammograms are one type of X-ray.
Mammograms may also be done with the help of a computer to make digital images. This method is good for women younger than 50, women with dense breast tissue, and women who are premenopausal or perimenopausal. Digital mammograms are basically done the same way as a standard mammogram.
With either method, the mammogram images are checked for masses, tiny mineral deposits called calcifications, or areas of abnormal density. Any of these may mean that you have cancer. The problem areas are highlighted by the computer for a radiologist to look at.
You may need a mammogram as a screening test or to help your healthcare provider make a diagnosis. If you are older than 25, you should have a mammogram if you have these symptoms:
You may also need a routine mammogram if you are at high risk for breast cancer. Or if you have had breast cancer in the past.
Your provider may have other reasons for recommending that you have a mammogram.
When to get a mammogram
Different health experts have different recommendations for women who have no symptoms of breast cancer:
Talk with your healthcare provider to find out which screening guidelines are right for you. If you are at higher risk for breast cancer, talk with your provider about:
A mammogram is done with X-rays, which use a small amount of radiation. Talk with your healthcare provider about the amount of radiation used and any risks that apply to you.
Consider writing down all X-rays you get. This includes past scans and X-rays for other health reasons. Show this list to your provider. The risks of radiation exposure may be linked to the number of X-rays you have and the X-ray treatments you have over time.
Tell your provider if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If you need to have a mammogram while you are pregnant, your provider will take special steps to keep radiation exposure to your baby as low as possible.
Mammograms may be harder to interpret if you are younger than 30. This is because your breast tissue is denser than when you are older.
You may feel some pain or discomfort during the mammogram because your breast is compressed against the X-ray plate. This pressure will not harm your breast.
You may have other risks depending on your specific health condition. Be sure to talk with your provider about any concerns you have before the test.
Some things may make your mammogram less accurate. They include:
You may have your mammogram done as an outpatient. Or it may be done as part of your stay in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary. It depends on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices.
Generally, a mammogram follows this process:
The mammogram itself is not painful. But you may feel discomfort or pain when your breast is moved around and compressed. This is especially true if you have had a recent breast injury or surgery. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete the test as soon as possible.
In most cases you will not need to do anything special after a mammogram. Your healthcare provider may give you additional instructions, depending on your situation.