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Breast Cancer


NetWellness experts receive many questions about mammograms. Mammograms are the most popular diagnostic tool for breast cancer. It is a process in which x-rays are taken of your breast to reveal abnormal tissues. There are two situations in which mammography is used:

Screening mammography is used to detect breast changes in women who have no signs or symptoms or observable breast abnormalities. The goal is to detect cancer before any clinical signs are noticeable. This usually requires at least two mammograms from different angles of each breast.

Diagnostic mammography is used to investigate suspicious breast changes such as a breast lump, breast pain, an unusual skin appearance, nipple thickening or nipple discharge. It's also used to evaluate abnormal findings on a screening mammogram. Additional images can be made from other angles or focus on areas of concern at higher magnification.

Screening Guidelines

Though it is of course important to have a mammography when you already believe you have found something abnormal, it is also important that you have mammographies on a regular basis even if you do not suspect anything unusual yet. This will allow early detection you notice a problem. Below are guidelines for performing screening mammograms.

If you're age 40 or older, you should have screening mammograms every year. There is no upper age limit on when to stop screening mammograms, as long a other health conditions are not serious and a woman is healthy enough to undergo breast cancer treatment if cancer is detected.

Family medical history - If you are at increased risk of developing breast cancer because of family history, known to have abnormal BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes, or because of previous premalignant changes on biopsy, screening may be recommended at a younger age than 40. Sometimes breast MRIs (a more sophisticated imaging technique) are used in such individuals. Women at increased risk should have regular check-ups with a medical provider skilled in breast cancer screening and knowledgeable about the latest screening recommendations and techniques.

What You Can Expect

Mammograms should become part of each woman's regular medical routine. Luckily mammograms are relatively fast and should be only slightly uncomfortable at worst. Here?s how a mammogram works:

At the testing facility, you're given a gown and asked to remove neck jewelry and clothing from the waist up. It's a good idea to wear a two-piece outfit that day. Avoid the use of anti-perspirants or deodorants until after the mammograms are finished.

For the procedure itself, you stand in front of an X-ray machine specially designed for mammography. The technician places one of your breasts on a platform that holds the X-ray film and raises or lowers the platform to match your height. The technician helps you position your head, arms and torso to allow an unobstructed view of your breast.

Your breast is gradually pressed against the platform by a clear plastic plate. Pressure is applied for a few seconds to spread out the breast tissue. The pressure isn't harmful, but you may find it uncomfortable or even painful. If you have too much discomfort, inform the technician. Your breast must be compressed to even out its thickness and permit the X-rays to penetrate the breast tissue. The pressure also holds your breast still to decrease blurring from movement and minimizes the dose of radiation needed. During the brief X-ray exposure, you'll be asked to stand still and hold your breath.

After images are made of both your breasts, you may be asked to wait while the technician checks the quality of the images. If the views are inadequate for technical reasons, you may have to repeat part of the test. The entire procedure usually takes less than 30 minutes. Afterward, you may dress and resume normal activity.

More features about Breast Health

Breast cancer is a serious disease but it is treatable if caught early on. The NetWellness features listed below contain information regarding general breast health.

For more information:

Go to the Breast Cancer health topic, where you can:

This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Jul 12, 2010

Paula  Silverman, MD Paula Silverman, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University