What to Expect from Your Screening Mammogram

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Mammograms can save your life. Don't be afraid — be educated. From what they feel like to how long they take, these details about screening mammograms are bound to put your mind at ease.


Let's be honest — getting a mammogram isn't the most enjoyable experience in the world. But it can make all the difference in your health, especially as you get older. According to a National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) report, your risk of getting breast cancer increases as you age. So if you haven't had a mammogram screening yet, it's important to get one. Screening mammograms can catch breast cancer at early stages, which can make it easier to treat. And if you have Medicare Part B (either through Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan), a screening mammogram once every 12 months is fully covered. So it's definitely worth getting.

You might be nervous about getting your first mammogram. We get it. They have a rap for being a bit uncomfortable, and not knowing what to expect can wrack your nerves even more. So we're sharing all the details of a mammogram experience — from the time you book your appointment to what you can expect from the pictures — so you can feel empowered, confident, and ready when your yearly mammogram appointment is here.

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What happens during a mammogram screening

Your mammogram screening will take place in a private exam room with a technologist. The technologist should first explain the procedure to you and answer any questions you may have. Then, you'll be asked to remove all clothing above the waist (don't worry, you won't have to bare it all — you'll be given a wrap to wear). Once you put the wrap on, the technologist will position your breast onto the platform of a special machine designed to only look at breast tissue.

Once your breast is in the right position, it will be compressed. Flattening the breast helps the technologist get a high-quality picture. As soon as the images needed are taken (usually two), the compression will be released. Your breast will only be compressed for a few seconds, as it doesn't take long to take a picture. This will be done for both breasts. All in all, the whole procedure only takes about 20 minutes — way shorter than most doctor visits!

Since technologists aren't trained to determine the results of your mammogram, the images of your breasts will be sent to your doctor for examining.

What you feel during a mammogram screening

When your breasts are being compressed, you may feel some pressure and discomfort. Some women can experience pain. If the compression is hurting you, tell the technologist. There are other ways to screen for breast cancer, such as through an MRI or breast ultrasound, if a screening mammogram is extremely unpleasant.

What to expect after a mammogram screening

You'll learn of your mammography results in two ways — from a call from your doctor and from a summary mailed to you by the facility where you got your mammogram. Your facility must mail you an easy-to-understand summary of your mammogram results within 30 days — or as soon as possible — if the results suggest cancer was found. You might get this summary before your doctor calls you. If you have any questions about your mammogram, call the facility or your doctor.

Screening mammograms are quick, and only two to four screening mammograms in 1,000 lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer. So don't let the fear of pain or a breast cancer diagnosis keep you from getting a mammogram. Once you finish the procedure, you'll feel better knowing you've been proactive about your health.

And remember, you're fully covered for a screening mammogram every 12 months with Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan. So protecting your best assets won't cost you any extra cash.

Rachel Quetti is a health care writer at Aetna with experience in senior wellness, Medicare, commercial health care, and consumer engagement. When Rachel isn't trying out new fitness classes, she is cooking up fun, (mostly) healthy recipes in the kitchen. Rachel lives in Watertown, Massachusetts and has a degree in journalism from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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