Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer globally, as well as the most common cancer in women and among those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB). Some 2.26 million new cases of breast cancer as well as 685,000 deaths from the disease were recorded in 2020 alone. While breast cancer can occur in every country and afflict patients of any age past puberty, the chances of developing it are significantly higher in older people.
To detect breast cancer early and begin treatment when chances of survival and recovery are highest, doctors typically employ methods like mammograms and ultrasounds, which detect abnormal growths in the patient’s breasts. A mammogram is a medical procedure that uses X-rays to capture images of the breasts and is frequently used as a screening test for breast cancer. Follow-up mammograms are also common if screening mammograms yield unusual results.
Patients who have never had mammograms before are likely to experience some stress or anxiety about the process. Familiarising yourself with the procedures can give you a better idea of what to expect and ease your nerves before your appointment actually comes around. Here are a few things about mammograms that may be valuable in helping you understand the procedure before getting one yourself:
It Helps to Prepare for Your Mammogram
There are a few things you can do to make your experience smoother and more comfortable, both prior to your mammogram and during the procedure itself:
- If you have yet to start menopause, you’ll want to time your mammogram for the week after your monthly period, as your breasts will be relatively less tender around this point. You’ll also have an easier time remembering the date of your last period if your technician asks for it.
- Make sure your chest and underarm areas are free of any deodorants, lotions, powders or ointments. These can show up on your x-ray images and may even be mistaken for breast problems.
- A mammogram will require you to undress from the waist-up, so two-piece outfits are preferable. You can simply remove your top and put on the gown that the imaging centre’s staff will give you to wear.
- The imaging centre will probably ask you for your doctor’s name and contact details so that they can send results and recommendations to your doctor’s office directly. Be ready to provide their address and phone number as well if necessary.
Mammograms Are Not as Uncomfortable as You Think
Many people imagine the mammography machine flattening their breasts and causing them intense pain, but that’s not actually what happens at reputable centres with skilled technicians. During the procedure, the technician places the patient’s breasts one at a time between a pair of plastic imaging plates. These plates will need to compress your breasts somewhat while capturing the x-ray images.
While the pressure applied to your breasts during a mammogram can certainly be uncomfortable, it isn’t meant to be painful. Spreading and flattening the breast tissue in this way makes it easier to ensure a clear view of each breast and capture images with the smallest amount of radiation possible.
Additionally, there’s no need to worry about being poked and prodded by a lot of people, as only the patient and the technician are supposed to be present in the room during a mammogram. Most mammogram technicians are female and have been trained to handle patients’ bodies with the utmost care and professionalism. A good technician will also take care to walk you through every step of the process to ensure that you understand what’s happening from start to finish.
Mammograms Typically Take Only a Few Minutes
Mammograms don’t usually take very long to complete. Depending on your technician and on the protocols observed at your imaging centre, the entire procedure should take anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes.
Your breasts will also be compressed between the imaging plates for no more than 20 to 30 seconds at a time. While your technician will likely repeat these compressions 2-3 times per breast, the imaging process should only take around 5 minutes all in all.
Most Unusual Findings on a Mammogram Aren’t Cancer
Once your mammogram is completed, your imaging centre will take care of reviewing your results and sending a report on the exam to your doctor. Many patients may be called in to discuss unusual findings on their first mammograms, but it’s important to remember that these are not necessarily always signs of cancer. Detected abnormalities may simply be stretches of especially dense tissue, cysts, or distortions caused by unclear images.
Given this, it’s wise not to panic immediately if your doctor or imaging centre recommends that you go back for more imaging or to undergo other types of tests. Most of the time, these callbacks are mostly precautionary, particularly when the images from your first mammogram don’t come out as clear as they should ideally be. You may be referred for a follow-up mammogram or a breast ultrasound in such cases.
Although getting your first mammogram can be stressful, the peace of mind you’ll get from knowing that you’re cancer-free should be well worth it. Breast cancer is also much easier to treat when it’s diagnosed early, so it’s in your best interest not to skip this potentially life-saving procedure. Regular mammograms are especially advisable if you’re older or have a family history of the disease.