Breaking down a mammogram

How to prepare for your first visit and what happens once you're there.

Marcia Frellick

HealthKey.com contributor

October 2, 2009


You've heard the stories and winced when your girlfriends have described the test. But what's the reality? Here are some answers to common questions:

WHAT DOES IT DO? A mammogram is an X-ray exam of the breast. The National Cancer Institute says most are screening mammograms, used to look for cancer in women who have no symptoms. Mammograms done on women who have lumps, pain, nipple discharge or other symptoms, or who have a suspicious change seen on a screening mammogram, are called diagnostic mammograms.

HOW DOES IT WORK? Your breast is compressed between an X-ray plate and a plastic plate, and this causes discomfort for many women. The breast needs to be compressed to spread tissue apart and to keep the tissue still for a clearer picture. Spreading it out also ensures that the image can be taken with a lower X-ray dose. The technician likely will apply clear stickers with a silver bead to your nipples to mark their position on the X-ray.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE? Two angles of each breast will be shot, and the entire procedure takes about 20 minutes, according to the American Cancer Society.

WHO PERFORMS THE PROCEDURE? You and a technologist will be the only ones in the room. The technologist--and the great majority are women--will position your breasts for X-ray.

HOW SHOULD I PREPARE FOR THIS? Try not to schedule your mammogram when your breasts are tender as they may be just before or during your period.

Do not apply deodorant, perfumes, powder or lotions before the mammogram. They may show up as white spots on the X-ray, advises the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure. You may want to wear pants, short or a skirt so that you need remove only your top and bra. The facility will give you a gown for cover.

WHAT IF I'M PREGNANT? The American Cancer Society says it is relatively safe to have a mammogram while you're pregnant because the amount of radiation is small and it's focused on the breast. A lead shield can help protect your abdomen. But doctors may advise that you wait if there is no cause for concern as other tests, such as ultrasound, are available.

Pregnant women should be even more diligent about breast self-exams.

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