About AOA

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Mammograms and Breast Health

A mammogram is a special low dose X-ray of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal. The results are recorded on X-ray film, or directly into a computer for a radiologist to examine, allowing for a closer look for changes in breast tissue that cannot be felt during a breast exam. It can show tumors long before they are big enough for you or your health care provider to feel.

Mammograms are used for women who have no breast complaints and for women who have breast symptoms, such as a change in the shape or size of a breast, a lump, nipple discharge, or pain. Breast changes occur in almost all women. In fact, most of these changes are not cancer and are called “benign,” but only a doctor can know for sure. Breast changes can also happen monthly, due to your menstrual period.

Mammograms and Breast Health

Mammograms are quick and easy. You stand in front of an X-ray machine. The person who takes the X-rays places your breast between two plastic plates. The plates press your breast and make it flat. This may be uncomfortable, but it helps get a clear picture. You will have an X-ray of each breast. A mammogram takes only a few seconds and it can help save your life.

What if I have breast implants?

Women with breast implants should also have mammograms. A woman who had an implant after breast cancer surgery in which the entire breast was removed (mastectomy) should ask her doctor whether she needs a mammogram of the reconstructed breast.

If you have breast implants, be sure to tell your mammography facility that you have them when you make your appointment. The technician and radiologist must be experienced in x-raying patients with breast implants. Implants can hide some breast tissue, making it harder for the radiologist to see a problem when looking at your mammogram. To see as much breast tissue as possible, the x-ray technician will gently lift the breast tissue slightly away from the implant and take extra pictures of the breasts.

Are There Any Problems with Mammograms?

Though not perfect, mammograms are the best method to find breast changes that cannot be felt. If your mammogram shows a breast change, sometimes other tests are needed to better understand it.

As with any medical test, mammograms have limitations, including:

  • They are only part of a complete breast exam. Your AOA doctor also will do a clinical breast exam. If your mammogram finds something abnormal, your doctor will order other tests.
  • Finding cancer does not always mean saving lives. Even though mammography can detect tumors that cannot be felt, finding a small tumor does not always mean that a woman’s life will be saved. Mammography may not help a woman with a fast growing cancer that has already spread to other parts of her body before being found.
  • False negatives can happen. This means everything may look normal, but cancer is actually present. False negatives don't happen often. Younger women are more likely to have a false negative mammogram than are older women. The dense breasts of younger women make breast cancers harder to find in mammograms.
  • False positives can happen. This is when the mammogram results look like cancer is present, even though it is not. False positives are more common in younger women, women who have had breast biopsies, women with a family history of breast cancer, and women who are taking estrogen, such as menopausal hormone therapy.
  • Mammograms (as well as dental x-rays and other routine x-rays) use very small doses of radiation. The risk of any harm is very slight, but repeated x-rays could cause cancer. The benefits nearly always outweigh the risk. Talk to your doctor about the need for each x-ray. Ask about shielding to protect parts of the body that are not in the picture. You should always let your doctor and the technician know if there is any chance that you are pregnant.

When Should I Get a Mammogram?

The National Cancer Institute recommends:

  • Women 40 years and older should get a mammogram every 1 to 2 years.
  • Women who have had breast cancer or other breast problems or who have a family history of breast cancer might need to start getting mammograms before age 40, or they might need to get them more often.

Talk to your AOA health care provider about when to start and how often you should have a mammogram.