What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray examination of the breasts which seeks to identify changes that are not normal. The results are recorded on x-ray film or directly into a computer for a doctor called a radiologist to examine. A mammogram gives the doctor an opportunity to have a closer look for changes in breast tissue that cannot be felt during a routine breast exam. The procedure is used for women who have no breast complaints and for women who have breast cancer symptoms, such as a change in the shape or size of a breast, a lump, nipple discharge, or pain. Breast changes are a common occurrence in almost all women. In fact, most of these changes are not cancer and are called "benign," but only a doctor can diagnose the condition. Breast changes can also happen monthly, due to your menstrual period.

What is the best method of detecting breast cancer as early as possible?

A high-quality mammogram accompanied by a clinical breast exam, and an examination done by your doctor, is the most effective way to detect breast cancer early. Detecting breast cancer early greatly improves the odds for successful treatment.

Like any test, mammograms have both benefits and limitations. For example, some cancers can't be found by a mammogram, but they may be found in a clinical breast exam. Conduct regular checks of your own breasts for lumps or other changes in a process called a breast self-exam (BSE). Research so far has not shown that BSE alone helps reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer. BSE should not take the place of routine clinical breast exams and mammograms.

If you choose to do BSE, take into consideration that breast changes can occur due to pregnancy, aging, menopause, menstrual cycles, or from taking birth control pills or other hormones. It is normal for breasts to feel a little lumpy and uneven. Also, it is common for breasts to be swollen and tender right before or during a menstrual period. If you notice any unusual changes in your breasts, it is highly recommended that you contact your doctor.

How is a mammogram done?

The procedure requires you to stand in front of a special x-ray machine. The person who takes the x-rays, called a radiologic technician, places your breasts, one at a time, between an x-ray plate and a plastic plate. These plates are attached to the x-ray machine and compress the breasts to flatten them. This spreads the breast tissue out to obtain a more clear, visible picture. You will feel a considerable amount of pressure on your breast for a few seconds. It may cause you some discomfort; you might feel squeezed or pinched. This feeling only lasts for a few seconds, and the flatter your breast, the better the picture, allowing for a more detailed look at the tissues. Most often, two pictures are generally taken of each breast one from the side and one from above. The mammogram procedure usually takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.

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