9 Things To Know Before Your First Mammogram

Will it hurt? How long does it take? Here are some answers.

Before your first mammogram, you’re sure to have questions about the procedure. A mammogram involves getting a series of X-rays of breast tissue to screen for breast problems. Mammograms can be vital in detecting breast cancer early.   

Many women associate mammograms with a breast cancer diagnosis, fearing them and putting off appointments. But they shouldn’t—a relatively small number of mammograms, between two and four out of every 1,000, result in breast cancer diagnosis.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), an organization made up of healthcare providers and experts that find different ways to prevent disease, recommends that women get regular mammograms every two years from 50–74. 

But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends mammogram screening every one to two years, beginning at age 40, for people with average risk. So, it would be best to talk to a healthcare provider about your breast cancer risk and what screening routine is right for you.

To help you overcome your mammogram worries and take control of your breast health, Health reached out to radiologists who read mammograms daily. Here, they share everything you should know before you get your first mammogram, from how to find a facility to what to bring.

Don't Worry Too Much

Not only do mammograms provide peace of mind, but they also can catch breast cancer at early stages, which makes it easier to treat. 

Still, are you dreading your first visit? Make it a party, Laurie Margolies, MD, a radiologist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York told Health.

“Some women will come in and get their mammograms together, then go out to lunch after,” said Dr. Margolies. “Whatever gets you to go.”

Choose a Certified Facility

"You should choose a certified mammogram facility and, even better, a Center of Excellence," Mitva Patel, MD, a breast radiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Health

Certified centers follow a mandatory accreditation program, while Centers of Excellence undergo additional voluntary accreditation processes, as determined by the American College of Radiology. Those validated centers read breast mammograms daily, so you know you're getting a proper screening when it comes to procedure and results.

"There's a difference between someone who occasionally reads a mammogram and someone who only reads breast imaging all day because you get better at it," noted Dr. Patel.

Use the American College of Radiology's search tool to find a certified facility or a Center of Excellence near you.

You Can (And Should) Get a Mammogram if You Have Breast Implants

For women with breast implants, the purpose of a mammogram is two-fold.

“We can check the integrity of the implant using the imaging,” in addition to screening for breast cancer, noted Dr. Patel. 

After looking at the implants, the mammogram technician can shift them out of the picture to get a better view of the breast tissue surrounding them. You’ll get more images than a woman without breast implants would, but the mammogram is a way to ensure your breasts—natural or not—are safe.

Schedule the Appointment for After Your Period

Breasts tend to be most sensitive leading up to and during menstruation. Since a mammogram involves putting your breasts between two plates and flattening the tissue, doing so with hypersensitive breasts tends to be uncomfortable.

“Schedule it a week after you finish your period. That’s when hormones are most stable,” Dr. Patel suggested.

Don’t Wear Deodorant

While smelling as fresh as a daisy is ideal, aluminum in deodorant can seriously alter your mammogram results. 

"Deodorant shows up on a mammogram as white spots, and they look very similar and indistinguishable from spots that are cancer," said Dr. Margolies. 

The same goes for perfume or any powder. Although you're not applying deodorant directly to your breasts, mammograms also take images from under the armpits. Any products in that vicinity can affect your screening.

If you forgot to lay off the deodorant before your mammogram, your technologist or radiologist might ask you to wash off the product. That's so they can retake the images and get a clearer picture. Some offices that offer mammograms may also provide wet wipes in their changing rooms, so you can wipe off your deodorant before getting screened.

Take Tylenol Before Your Appointment

Since the imaging process compresses your breasts, you might experience tenderness or pain during and after your mammogram. Taking an over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller can help. 

Pop a couple of Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) before your mammogram to ease soreness, suggested Dr. Patel. You can also tell the technologist, and they can try to adjust the compression to make you more comfortable.

Know Your Medical History

A healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including anything that may affect your breast cancer risk, including:

  • A family history of breast cancer: If you have a first-degree relative (like a mother, daughter, or sister) who has a history of breast cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • A personal history of breast cancer: Women who have had breast cancer before are more likely than others to develop it again.
  • Your reproductive history: If you got your period before 12 years old or started menopause after age 55, that exposed your body to more hormones. That increased exposure may raise your risk. 
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy: If you had radiation therapy to your chest or breasts before age 30, you might have an increased risk of breast cancer later in life.

Even if no one in your family has had breast cancer, getting your mammogram is essential. Just 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, so plenty of women with no family history get breast cancer. A healthcare provider can go over any other risk factors for breast cancer that you might have.

Expect a Quick Appointment

According to Dr. Patel, mammogram appointments are relatively fast, taking between 15 and 30 minutes for routine screening. After you check in at the office, you’ll change into a gown, removing your top for the imaging. 

The technologist will usually take four images: One of each breast compressed from the top down and one of each breast at a side view. 

“Places mostly have digital images, so they’ll pop onto the screen, and the technologist will look at them and repeat if the quality isn’t good,” explained Dr. Patel.

You’ll head home or off to work, and the radiologist will read your mammogram later in the day or the following day. If your mammogram isn’t a screening but a diagnostic mammogram to look at discharge or a lump, the radiologist will read your images immediately.

What To Expect After Your Appointment

“All centers are required to send you a letter,” noted Dr. Patel. The letter will use easy-to-understand terms to explain the findings of your screening and tell you the next steps. If your screening is all clear, the letter will advise you when to return for your next mammogram.

If a lump or a mass is detected, a healthcare provider may call within a few days to ask you to return to the office for more images. In some cases, the radiologist can advise you on what to do next during your mammogram. 

“They [can] say if everything looks fine, if you need a tissue sample, or if it’s probably fine and [you can] come back in six months to be safe,” said Dr. Patel.

A Quick Review

Regular mammograms are a safe and reliable way to ensure you're healthy and detect breast cancer early. Most women should start getting mammograms around 50, but those with risk factors might need to start earlier. 

Before your appointment, remember not to wear deodorant or perfume, and be sure to schedule your appointment a week after your period at a certified facility. Lastly, try not to worry too much. 

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Sources
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  1. American Cancer Society. Tips for getting a mammogram.

  2. American Cancer Society. Mammogram basics.

  3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Mammography and other screening tests for breast problems.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is breast cancer screening?.

  5. American College of Radiology. ACR accreditation: The gold standard in medical imaging.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is a mammogram?.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

  8. American Cancer Society. Breast cancer risk factors you cannot change.

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