What You Need to Know About Mammograms

Breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, but many women with breast cancer have no symptoms. The American Cancer Society is stressing the importance of early detection and annual mammograms to women across Western Mass.

A mammogram is an important step in taking care of yourself and your breasts. A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray that allows specialists to look for changes in breast tissue that aren’t normal. The American Cancer Society recommends that, starting at age 40, women at average risk should have the choice to begin yearly mammograms. Women should begin yearly mammograms at age 45, and they can switch to every two years at age 55. And all women, no matter their age, need to let their healthcare provider know about any changes to their breasts.

Whether you’re a mammogram newbie or a veteran, knowing what to expect may help you navigate the process more smoothly. Talk to your provider about the breast screening plan that is best for you.

Where to go: Find a center that specializes in mammograms. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration certifies mammogram facilities that meet high professional standards of quality and safety. Ask to see the FDA certificate if one isn’t posted near the receptionist’s desk when you arrive. And when you find a facility you like, stick with it. Having all your mammograms at the same facility will make it easier for doctors to compare images from one year to the next.

When to schedule: It’s best to schedule your mammogram for the week after your menstrual period. Your breasts won’t be tender or swollen, which means less discomfort during the X-ray and a clearer picture.

What (and what not) to wear: Wear a two-piece outfit because you will need to remove your top and bra. Do not apply deodorant, antiperspirant, powder, lotion, or ointment on or around your chest on the day of your mammogram. These products can appear as white spots on the x-ray.

What to expect: The entire procedure takes about 20 minutes. The breast is compressed for a few seconds while an X-ray picture is taken. The breast is repositioned (and compressed again) to take another view. This is then done on the other breast. Flattening the breast tissue, while uncomfortable for some women, provides a clearer view of the breast and lessens the amount of radiation needed to take an X-ray picture.

Getting the results: You should get your results within 30 days. If you don’t, you should call to ask about them. If doctors find something suspicious, you’ll likely be contacted within a week to take new pictures or get other tests. But that doesn’t mean you have cancer. A suspicious finding may be just dense breast tissue or a cyst. Other times, the image just isn’t clear and needs to be retaken. If this is your first mammogram, your doctor may want to look at an area more closely simply because there is no previous mammogram for comparison.

What you pay: Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and almost all private insurance plans now cover annual mammograms, with no co-pay or other out-of-pocket costs. Medicaid also covers mammograms. For uninsured or low-income women, free or low-cost programs are available.