According to the National Cancer Institute breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in this country (except for skin cancer). Each year an average of 250,000 American women learn they have this disease. A mammogram is an important screening tool that can help doctors find and treat cancer early.
The tool uses a special x-ray machine to take pictures of both breasts. The results are recorded on film that a doctor can examine. Mammograms test for breast lumps and changes in breast tissue that may develop into problems over time. They can find small lumps or growths that a doctor or woman can’t feel when doing a breast exam.
Breast lumps or growths can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). If a lump is found, the doctor will order a biopsy—a test where a small amount of tissue is taken from the lump and area around the lump. The tissue is sent to a lab to look for cancer or changes that may mean cancer is likely to develop. Finding breast cancer early means that a woman has a better chance of surviving the disease. There are also more choices for treatment when breast cancer is found early.
There are two types of mammograms. Screening mammograms are done for women who have no symptoms of breast cancer. Diagnostic mammograms are done when a woman has symptoms of breast cancer or a breast lump. This type takes longer because more pictures of the breast are taken.
Getting a mammogram is easy and does not take much time. First, you stand in front of a special x-ray machine. Then the person who takes the x-rays (always a woman) places your breasts (one at a time) between two plastic plates. The plates press your breast and make it flat.
You will feel pressure on your breast for a few seconds. The test may cause some discomfort, feeling like a squeeze or pinch. The breasts need to be flat in order to produce the best possible picture. Most often, two pictures are taken of each breast, one from the side and one from above. The whole process takes only a few minutes.
Women over 45 should get a mammogram every year and women 55 and older one every two years. Women who have had breast cancer or those with a family history of breast cancer may need to start having mammograms at a younger age or more often. Talk to your doctor about how often you should get a mammogram. Be aware that mammograms don’t take the place of getting breast exams from a doctor and examining your own breasts.
If you find a lump or see changes in your breast, talk to your doctor right away no matter what your age. Your doctor may order a mammogram for you to get a better look at your breast changes.