A mammogram is an X-ray of breast tissue. Mammography is a screening tool that searches for cancer when there are no symptoms of a health problem. A mammogram detects lumps, changes in breast tissue or calcifications when they’re too small to be found in a physical exam.
Usually two images from different angles are taken of each breast. The procedure uses the X-ray images to find abnormalities within the breast tissue.
American Cancer Society guidelines recommend that all women age 40 and over have annual mammograms. A woman at high risk of breast cancer because her mother or sister was diagnosed with the disease should have her first mammogram at age 40 or 10 years before the age at which the relative was
diagnosed, whichever comes first. The first mammogram done is called a baseline mammogram. This baseline becomes the standard for which all future mammograms are compared and the physician can tell if there have been any changes in the breast tissue.
A specially trained radiology technologist performs the mammogram by positioning the breast tissue in the screening equipment. Compressing or flattening the breast obtains a clearer picture of the tissue while using the lowest dose of radiation possible. The compression can be uncomfortable but will only last for a few seconds while the X-ray is taken. Some women may feel sore after a mammogram.
Sometimes, additional images for more precise pictures of the breast tissue are required. Although unsettling, this is not unusual and provides the images needed for more accurate results. A radiologist, a medical doctor trained in radiology, reads the mammogram.
The Role of Mammography in Breast Cancer Management
A mammogram is an x-ray exam of the breast. It is used to detect and evaluate breast changes. Mammograms are most often used to look for breast cancer that is too small to be felt in women who have no breast complaints or symptoms. These are called screening mammograms. The goal of screening exams, such as mammograms, is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms.
Mammograms are also used in women who have breast symptoms, such as a lump, pain, nipple discharge, or who have a suspicious change seen on a screening mammogram. These are called diagnostic mammograms. Breast cancers that are found because they can be felt tend to be larger and there is a possibility that they are more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In contrast, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be small and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are important factors in predicting the prognosis (survival outlook) for a woman with this disease.
Early detection tests for breast cancer saves many thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their health care providers took advantage of screening tests.
Who should have a Mammogram?
American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer detection are that women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
In particular, recent evidence has confirmed that mammograms offer substantial benefit for women in their 40s. Women can feel confident about the benefits associated with regular mammograms for finding cancer early. However, mammograms also have limitations. A mammogram will miss some cancers, and it sometimes can lead to findings that are not cancer, including biopsies Women should be told about the benefits and limitations linked with regular screening. Despite their limitations, mammograms remain a very effective and valuable tool for decreasing deaths from breast cancer.
Mammograms for older women should be based on the individual, her health, and other serious illnesses. Age alone should not be the reason to stop having regular mammograms.