How often 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 doctor about when to start and how often you should have a mammogram.

What can mammograms show?

The radiologist will look at your x-rays and aim to identify breast changes that do not appear normal and for differences in each breast. He or she will compare your past mammograms with your most recent one to check for changes. The doctor will also look for lumps and calcifications.

  • Lump or mass. The size, shape, and edges of a lump sometimes can give doctors information about whether or not it may be cancer. On a mammogram, a growth that is benign often looks smooth and round with a clear, defined edge. Breast cancer often has a jagged outline and an irregular shape.
  • Calcification. A calcification is a deposit of the mineral calcium in the breast tissue. Calcifications appear as small white spots on a mammogram.

There are two types:

  • Macrocalcifications are large calcium deposits often caused by aging. This is not usually a sign a sign of cancer.
  • Microcalcifications are tiny specks of calcium that may be found in an area of rapidly dividing cells.
  • If calcifications are grouped together in a certain way, it may be a sign of cancer. Depending on how many calcium specks are present, how big they are, and what they appear to look like, your doctor may recommend that you have other tests done. Calcium in the diet does not create calcium deposits, or calcifications, in the breast.

Copyright 2012 WHMI (Women's Health & Mammography Institute)